May 17, 2020
By His death, Jesus became the ultimate scapegoat to bear all sin, the ultimate sacrifice to endure God’s wrath, and the ultimate High Priest to secure eternal forgiveness. Christ’s finished work—once for all, for all time—ensured salvation for believers. As our Priest, though, He also continues to intercede for us before God. Turning our focus from self-effort to Jesus, Alistair Begg explains how the cross deals with our failures, fears, and final judgment.
We’re going to read from the New Testament, in the letter to the Hebrews and in chapter 10, and we’ll read from the first verse through to the end of verse 18. Hebrews chapter 10 and reading from verse 1. And the writer is continuing his logical progression from chapter 9; hence, he begins, “For”:
“For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
“Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said,
“‘Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired,
but a body [you have] prepared for me;
in burnt offerings and sin offerings
you have taken no pleasure.
Then I said, “Behold, I have come to do your will, O God,
as it is written of me in the scroll of the book.”’
When he said above, ‘You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings’ (these are offered according to the law), then he added, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will.’ He does away with the first in order to establish the second. And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
“And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.
“And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying, ‘This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds,’ then he adds, ‘I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.’ Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.”
Thanks be to God for his Word.
Our gracious God, we come to you again this morning in all of our need, in all of our helplessness, asking that by the Holy Spirit we might hear the very word of Christ, that Jesus might be our teacher, that our gaze may be so turned to him that the other things that have clamored for our attention—good, bad, and ugly—may actually be as dross, and that we might find in Christ our all in all. For we pray in his name. Amen.
Well, here we are. I was trying to count up last week, or actually last night, how many times now we find ourselves in this place: scattered, isolated; if we’re honest, some of us somewhat unsettled and bewildered and wondering when actually we will be together again, whether things will ever actually be as they once were. I find myself humming the old song from the Three Degrees; they weren’t singing it about church congregations, I know, but you perhaps recall it: “When will I see you again? When will we share precious moments?” As I look out on this empty room, I find myself asking that question, and I think you are too.
Our iPhones and our iPads have made it possible for us to be alone together, so that people sit together in one room—in the context of a table, perhaps—isolated from one another by means of their phone. And now, strangely, we’re turning to those same devices to try and be together while we are alone. Because now this is life without the usual place, without the usual gatherings, without the liturgy, without the congregational singing, without the celebration—without, if you like, all of the meaningful pieces that are part of our corporate life. It’s good just to think about that for a moment or two and to realize what life must really be like for many of our brothers and sisters in places around the world where the freedoms that we enjoy are not theirs to share.
It also should help us to understand something of the context of this letter to the Hebrews. Because what has happened to these people is that they have become followers of the Lord Jesus. And as a result of that, a lot of things have changed—particularly, their worship. Their worship is no longer marked by the grandeur of the temple. They are now removed from the accompanying sounds and sights of temple worship, the fragrances that were a part of the incense and so on. And at the same time, they no longer are looking for the sight of the high priest coming out on the Day of Atonement. There’s a sense in which the whole thing has been sidelined in some way, that they would be tempted to feel that now they have nothing, that now the things that are really part and parcel of their existence are gone, and what are they going to do now?
Well, it is in that context that Hebrews is written. And the writer reminds them in chapter 13, before he finishes, “Here we have no lasting city, but we [see] the city that is to come.” So, those who have been focused entirely on Jerusalem, entirely on the temple, in the way in which we may be even focused on buildings and in different things—“No,” he says, “you better remember that this is not where we end up.” And so he encourages them to make sure that they are looking to Jesus. Chapter 12: “Looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of [your] faith.” Or in the third chapter, as he begins chapter 3: “Therefore, holy brothers, you who share in a heavenly calling, consider Jesus,” seeing him as an “apostle and [the] high priest of our confession.” In other words, the exhortation in Hebrews is to fix our eyes upon Jesus—fixing our eyes upon him as the Priest whom we confess.
Well, I was glad of this, because that’s really where we find ourselves. A couple of Sundays ago, we began what has become essentially a mini-series as we said, “You know, I think it is important that we begin to look to Jesus.” And so, now we find ourselves looking for a third time at the incomparable Christ, reminding ourselves that he is the one mediator between God and man, and in that capacity, he fulfills the office of Prophet and Priest and King—as we said last time, three distinguishable facets of one indistinguishable reality.
We also said last time that each of the elements in the office that he fulfills have an inherent and implicit judgment in them. Why do we need a prophet? Well, because we are ignorant of God. Why do we need a king? Because we are rebellious, and we need someone to rule and reign over us. And why do we need, then, a priest? Well, because we are estranged, sinfully estranged, and we are alienated from God.
And so, I want to think for a moment about the function of the priest. There is far more than we have time to deal with, but at least we should understand certain foundational facts.
The essence of the priest’s function, throughout the Old Testament and then fulfilled in Jesus, is access to God. Access to God. The wonder of the story of the Bible is that God, seeing us in our inability to know him, to love him, to understand him, certainly to serve him, he has then come to redeem and to restore us. That is actually part of the lyric of one of the songs we have just sung. And he has done this through a series of mighty acts, all the way through the Old Testament, all the way through the history of the Bible, culminating, then, in the Lord Jesus Christ, whom he has sent in order to bring us back to a relationship with himself. And it is in bridging that chasm that the Lord Jesus comes fulfilling this role as the priest.
Now, the benefit that was theirs as Hebrews lay in the fact that they fully understood the Old Testament to which the writer is referring, so that they had clearly in their minds the Day of Atonement, about which we can read in Leviticus 16. They understood that on that day the high priest took two goats, one of which was slain and its blood offered as a sacrifice; the other one had the sins of the people symbolically pronounced over its head, and then it was driven out into the wilderness as a scapegoat. The people would then wait for the high priest to emerge from the Holy Place, his reemergence signaling the fact that the sacrifice for sin had been accepted. And they would wait for him essentially to pronounce the shalom, the blessing of Aaron, “The Lord bless you, keep you, make his face shine upon you”—this blessing, which is the fruit of forgiveness. They were familiar with all of that. That was, for many of them, their immediate background. But it all changed, and it had changed because Jesus, by his death on the cross, was both the sacrifice and the scapegoat for sins.
Now, Hebrews 9. If your Bible is open and you’re able to turn to it, if you look there just at verses 11 and 12: “But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent,” referring to the Old Testament tabernacle, “(not made with hands [as it was], that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.” In the same way that the people waited for the high priest to emerge as an indication that the sacrifice for sin had been accepted, in his resurrection the Lord Jesus comes forth to declare that the sacrifice once for all that has been made for sin has been accepted by the Father, and he has triumphed, and the curtain has been torn, and the door of access is now open.
Now, a number of things follow from this, and again, there are many, but let me just say two. In light of this, there is therefore no need for repetition, for his sacrifice was made once for all. Now I’m quoting from 7:26–27: “It was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens.” Listen carefully: “He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself.” We also read the same thing when we read in 10:11–12. So, there is no need for repetition.
And secondly, there is absolutely no need for any addition—or, perhaps putting it better, that there is no possibility of anything to be added to the finished work of the Lord Jesus Christ. That’s why you have that wonderful contrast in what we read in chapter 10: “Every [high] priest stands daily.” “Stands daily.” And that’s at the beginning of verse 11, and then verse 12: “But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down.”
The wonder in this, of course, as we have rehearsed in our hymnody, is that the offering priest is also the sacrifice. What doctor heals by taking my cancer on himself in order that I might be free of it? This is the very heart of the Bible. It’s the heart of the work of the Lord Jesus, because it consists on him having on our behalf and in our place borne the punishment due to us—due to us on account of our sin—and then bringing to us pardon and reconciliation with God.
There is nothing like this in any of the other religions in the world. None. It is unique to Christianity. Christianity stands and falls on these issues. We’re dealing with facts. We’re not dealing with a philosophy. We’re not dealing with ideas, that things have been drummed up along the way. No, Jesus died for sin. Jesus was raised to life. Jesus fulfills the role of the Priest. Jesus is the Great Shepherd who is seeking the sheep that are lost.
I sat through a lot of church services as a small boy. I thought at the time that I was suffering badly from the experience, only to grow into manhood and realize the unique privilege that I have enjoyed. And every so often on those occasions, there would be somebody who sang a song. And sometimes I would regard it as humorous, and sometimes I would be reprimanded for that, but other times it would stick. And there was one song that I remember lying on my bed at night and thinking about. And it of course came from that wonderful story of Jesus telling how the sheep that were lost and the shepherd went out looking for them. Some people regard it as a kind of sentimental song. We could treat it in that way, but it’s better than that. And “there were ninety and nine that safely lay,” remember, “in the shelter of the fold. But one was out on the hills away” and “far off from the gates of gold,” and then the picture of the Shepherd going out. And it was that amazing thought that comes in one of the subsequent verses which I always would wonder at. It goes like this:
But none of the ransomed ever knew
How deep were the waters crossed;
Nor how dark was the night
[That] the Lord passed through
[When] he found [the] sheep that was lost.
And I can still remember, as a child in my bed at night, thinking, “What an amazing, loving, kind Shepherd, to go to that extent.”
My dear friends, that is the story that is found here in the Priest. “Jesus went into the presence of God,” writes my good friend Sinclair, “as if he were the only sinner in the world, enduring the wrath of God,” and “there, in the darkness, he became both the sacrifice and the scapegoat for our sins.”
Now, we must leave it there, with one further observation. We said last time that in the work of the Prophet, there is the finished dimension to it, in that Jesus is the final word; and yet the ongoing work of the Prophet, Jesus, is the one who comes in the preaching of the gospel to speak into our hearts. In the same way, the work of the High Priest is a finished work, a once-and-for-all accomplishment for sin, no need for repetition, no possibility of addition. And yet, the ongoing work of the Priest is there in the leading of his people in the praise, is there in his interceding on behalf of his people. We have a Priest who’s there interceding, shedding his grace on our lives day by day.
We’re not going to pause on this, but we should at least understand that when Jesus enters into the presence of the Father, he does not go to offer his sacrifice to God, for that has been made once and for all. He does not go to present it to the Father, pleading, as it were, for his sacrifice to be accepted, because it has already been accepted, hence the reality of the resurrection. But he is there in heaven to intercede on the basis of a once-for-all sacrifice for sin. And he is there as our advocate with the Father.
Now, what I want to do is use the balance of my time for some of you who perhaps are already saying, “So what?” And that’s good, because I write that on my notes with frequency: “If this is as you say, if it is as you have given us this outline, what about it?” Well, I want to just make three observations.
That this message of Christ as our Great High Priest, the message of the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, is the answer, first of all, to my failures. To my failures. One of the songs that pops up with great frequency, even after all these years, is the song “My Way,” and the person that’s singing it says, “Regrets, I’ve had a few. But [there] again, too few to mention.” Nobody that I’ve ever met really believes that. Because deep down inside, each of us knows that we have rejected the position of dependence which is ours as creature before the creator God, and we have actually made a very strong bid for independence. And in living our lives independent of God, we find that there are many turns and twists and deep darknesses along the way —and, the Bible explains, because we have failed to love God with all our being. And whether it is just indifference or expressions of active rebellion, nevertheless, we are saying, “I will handle this myself. I don’t need an advocate. I don’t need anybody to do anything on my behalf for anything at all.”
But here’s what the Bible makes clear: since God, the Creator, has written the requirements of his law on the hearts of us as his creatures, when we break God’s law, as we do, we do not only offend against his authority, we do not only spurn his love; we actually offend against our own highest welfare —that the reason that he has made us, the reason that he has fashioned us, the reason that he has given us the green signals and the red signals and the cautionary notes and the stop signs, is for our well-being.
But we’ve failed. The New Testament uses a number of words for sin. One simply speaks of missing the target, trying to pitch the ball to the flag on the green and missing it—not even getting the green, hardly even staying on the golf course, some of us. We’ve missed the target. Miss it by an inch or miss it by a mile, we missed. Iniquity or inequity: that curvature of our rebellious hearts into ourselves rather than to God. Transgression: stepping or overstepping the boundaries that God has set for us.
And all of our attempts to deal with our failures on our own, all of our attempts to handle this question of sin—all of those attempts end inevitably in sadness and in disappointment. So we daren’t try and repress it or rationalize it or run from it. No, the only way to go is to reckon with it. To reckon with it. People, pretending that they’re Italian, say, “Fuggedaboutit. Forget about it.” But we can’t forget about it. We can’t.
And so what we do is we conjure up a God that will fit our needs, a God who has decided that he doesn’t really care about these issues, a “good” God who will be kind and benevolent and just overlook it. But no. We don’t actually even believe that. Even the people who tell me they believe that don’t believe it. James Denney, in one of his books says, “There is something in [the] conscience [of a man that] will not allow it to believe that God can simply condone sin.” There is something in the conscience. Why? Because God made us—made us with eternity, created us, fashioned us for his purposes. And despite the fact that we have rebelled against him, amazingly, he comes seeking us out.
So, the work of the priest is to bring about reconciliation by dealing with the cause of the quarrel. And the cause of the quarrel—our alienation from God—is two-sided. On our side, we are alienated by our sin, and on God’s side, by his wrath.
People stumble over the idea of the wrath of God, as if it were capricious, an outburst, an angry, vehement reaction to things. No, it is God’s settled position before everything that is unholy, everything that isn’t true, everything that is wrong. How could he be a holy God and be complacent about these things? The only way we can understand his love is in relationship to his wrath. In fact, it will only be when I understand the reality of God’s wrath that I will be overwhelmed by the extent of his mercy. R. W. Dale, in his little book on the atonement, says, “It is partly because sin does not provoke our own wrath that we do not believe that sin provokes the wrath of God.”
You consider, for example, the young man—as told, again, in the story from that same chapter, by Jesus—who had gone off and made a pigsty of things. And when he had come to himself, he said, “You know, what I will do is I’ll go back, and I’ll make my speech to my father, and I’ll tell him, ‘I’ve sinned against heaven and in your sight.’ And I’ll go back.” Why did he go back? Well, he could have come to that decision and stayed in his pigsty. He went back knowing the love of the father. It was the love of the father, like a magnet, that drew him: “Bring the fatted calf and kill it. Get a robe and put it on him, rings for his fingers, shoes for his feet.” This is what God does. This is what God does.
It’s a long time since I’ve rehearsed one of my favorite stories, told by the late David Watson, an evangelist in the Anglican Church in England in the ’60s and ’70s, and maybe into the ’80s. He was conducting a university mission, and in the address that he gave on one evening, in the crowd that had gathered there was a girl who stood out by her dress and by her demeanor. He said she just looked really tough; she smoked during his talk, and when she came up to him at the end of his talk, she still had a cigarette in her hand.
And he had ended his talk by saying to people, “You know, if you will turn to Jesus, he is the Great Shepherd, he is the one who has borne your punishment,” much along the lines of what I’m saying now. The girl came up, and she said to him, “I said your prayer.” And then she walked away. He tells of how the following evening, he was approached at the end of his talk by a young lady. He didn’t recognize her at first, but it was the same lady from the previous day. She told him, “I went home, I felt as guilty as hell, I cried all night, but I’ve come back to tell you I understand forgiveness.”
Can I ask you, I wonder, do you understand forgiveness? Do you understand forgiveness? Have you ever come to Jesus and laid down your failures and your sins and found in him the only one who breaks the chains that bind us to our own selfish inclinations? He’s the only one that sets our conscience free. What a wonderful word that was from the end of our reading: “[And] then [the Holy Spirit] adds, ‘I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.’” “No more.”
Well, he deals with our failures. Secondly, he deals with our fears. He deals with our fears. Chapter 2 of Hebrews says, in 14, “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things”—here we go—“that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” In Jesus, the leverage that the Evil One uses to fill us with fear has been destroyed. That’s what the writer is saying. Not only does Jesus bear God’s wrath, deal with our guilt, he sets us free from Satan’s grip, so that by embracing death—taking it, if you like, into himself—he destroys the devil’s hold on death, and he frees all who cower through life scared to death of death. “The sting of death is sin, … the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
What is the story? It’s remarkable: that Christ dies the death which was properly ours; that he bears sin’s penalty, thereby annulling death’s condemning power. And he ever lives to make intercession for us, so that, as we sang,
When Satan tempts me to despair
And tells me of the guilt within,
Upward I look and see him there
Who made an end [to] all my sin.
And what is Christ doing? Christ is then saying, “Father, this was all covered in that once-for-all sacrifice that I made.”
Upon a life I [did] not [live],
Upon a death I did not die,
Another’s life, another’s death,
I stake my whole eternity.
This speaks, actually, to the real underlying fear in dealing with the present pandemic. What is the totally bewildering and unsettling reality which lies at the heart of all of this? It is ultimately the fear of death. And the emptiness of much contemporary thought is insufficient to paper over the absence of an answer to this great eventuality. Woody Allen, in his nihilism, seeks to disguise his fear with his humor. Remember this? “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve immortality through not dying. I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen. I want to live on in my apartment.” I get it. But you’re not going to live on in your apartment, and neither am I. There is only one way, one place, in one person, where this fear is relieved, and that is knowing that my guilt has been borne by my great Savior, my High Priest. I wonder, have you entrusted this great fear to him?
Deals with our failures, deals with our fears, and deals with our finals. The Bible tells us that it is appointed unto man once to die, and after this comes judgment. “When Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent … he entered once for all into the holy places, … securing [for us] an eternal redemption.” “An eternal redemption.”
You see, that’s one of the things that people will always say: “Well, how do I know that I’m gonna make it to the end? How can I make it right through to the finishing tape? I’m often such a mess. I’m unbelieving. I don’t always do what I should. I often do what I shouldn’t. I’m a mess.” People know that.
Well, you see, if we were back in another time, then we would be standing together waiting for the priest to once again deal in a momentary fashion with our sins, only the following morning to deal with them all over again. And the contrast, you see, is between that temporary, repeatable sacrifice and the once-for-all, eternal sacrifice. “The Son of Man,” says Jesus, “[did not come] to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” As John Murray puts it, “Christ did not come to put men [and women] in a redeemable position but to redeem to himself a people.”
The hymn that we sang before we turned to the Bible is, of course, a well-known hymn penned by Charitie Lees Bancroft; her maiden name, I think, was Smith. It’s been a favorite of many ever since it was written in the nineteenth century, and it was a favorite of Spurgeon’s. Spurgeon died on the thirty-first of January in 1892. Four weeks before that, and just prior to his death, gathered with a group of friends in France to share in a time of worship, he quoted this line, this verse, from this hymn:
My perfect, spotless Righteousness,
The great unchangeable I Am,
The King of glory and of grace.
And addressing his friends for the last time, he said, “Though I have preached Christ crucified for more than forty years, and have led many to [the] Master’s feet, I have at this moment no ray of hope but that which comes from what my Lord Jesus has done for guilty men.” That is the only ray of hope. It is the only hope. It’s the only freeing of the conscience, the settling of our failures, the dealing with our fears, and the prospect that on that final day we will only have one thing to say: “Jesus.”
Well, just a moment of silence, and then we’ll sing a hymn which I don’t think Spurgeon knew, but I think he would have joined heartily in singing it with us in our close.
We bow down before you, our good God, thanking you for the immensity of your love in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Thank you that the gospel story is not that if we will clean ourselves up a little, we might have a chance of entry. Rather, it is
Just as I am—without one plea,
But that your blood was shed for me,
And that you bid me come to thee—
Lamb of God, Priest of God, Savior, I come.
 Leon Huff and Kenneth Gamble, “When Will I See You Again” (1973).
 Hebrews 13:14 (ESV).
 Hebrews 12:2 (RSV).
 Hebrews 3:1 (ESV).
 See 1 Timothy 2:5.
 Numbers 6:24–25 (paraphrased).
 Matthew 27:51; Mark 15:38; Luke 23:45. See also Hebrews 10:19–20.
 See Matthew 18:12–14; Luke 15:3–7.
 Elizabeth C. Clephane, “The Ninety and Nine” (1868).
 Alistair Begg and Sinclair B. Ferguson, Name above All Names (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 63.
 Paul Anka, “My Way” (1969).
 James Denney, The Atonement and the Modern Mind (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1903), 80.
 See Ecclesiastes 3:11.
 R. W. Dale, The Atonement: The Congregational Union Lecture for 1875 (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1875), 338–39.
 See Luke 15:11–24.
 1 Corinthians 15:56–57 (ESV).
 Charitie L. Bancroft, “Before the Throne of God Above” (1863).
 Horatius Bonar, “Upon a Life I Have Not Lived” (1881).
 See Hebrews 9:27.
 Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45 (ESV).
 John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955), 63.
 Bancroft, “Before the Throne.”
 Charles Spurgeon, quoted in Arthur Tappan Pierson, From the Pulpit to the Palm-Branch: A Memorial of C. H. Spurgeon (New York, 1892), 23.
 See Romans 5:8.
 Charlotte Elliott, “Just As I Am” (1835). Lyrics lightly altered.
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.