Christ’s Sacrifice Makes Possible Our Service (Hebrews 5:1–7:28)
Jesus, through his self-sacrifice, succeeded in taking away human sin forever. “When Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, ‘he sat down at the right hand of God.’ . . . For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified” (Heb. 10:12, 14). “Unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself” (Heb. 7:27). This complete atonement for sin is often referred to as “the work of Christ.”
It may seem that the forgiveness of sins is a purely church or spiritual matter with no implications for our work, but this is far from true. On the contrary, the definitive sacrifice of Jesus promises to liberate Christians to live lives of passionate service to God in every sphere of life. The text highlights the ethical—that is, practical—consequences of forgiveness in Hebrews 10:16, “I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.” In other words, we who are forgiven will desire to do God’s will (in our hearts) and will receive the wisdom, vision, and ability to do so (in our minds).
How is this so? Many people regard church activities in roughly the same way as some Israelites regarded the rituals of the old covenant. If we are to get on God’s good side, such people reckon, we need to do some religious things, since that seems to be the sort of thing God is interested in. Going to church is a nice, easy way to meet the requirement, although the downside is that we have to keep doing it every week so that the “magic” doesn’t wear off. The supposed good news is that once we meet our religious obligations, we are then free to go about our business without too much concern about God. We won’t do anything heinous, of course, but we are basically on our own until we refill our buckets with God’s favor by attending church again next week.
The book of Hebrews lays waste to such a view of God. While the Levitical system was a part of God’s good purposes for his people, it was always meant to point beyond itself to the future, definitive sacrifice of Christ. It was not a magical favor dispensary but a canteen for the journey. Now that Christ has come and offered himself on our behalf, we can experience the genuine forgiveness of sins through God’s grace directly. There is no further point in making perpetual ritual cleansings. We have no buckets that need to be—or can be—filled with God’s favor by doing religious activities. Trusting in Christ and his sacrifice, we are in the right with God. Hebrews 10:5 puts it as clearly as can be: “When Christ came into the world, he said, ‘Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me’” (Heb. 10:5).
None of this, of course, means that Christians shouldn’t go to church or that rituals have no place in Christian worship. What is crucial, though, is that the consummate sacrifice of Christ means that our worship is not a self-contained religious exercise sealed off from the rest of our lives. Instead, it is a “sacrifice of praise” (Heb. 13:15) that refreshes our connection with our Lord, cleanses our conscience, sanctifies our will, and thus frees us to serve God each day, wherever we are.
We are sanctified for service. “See, God, I have come to do your will, O God,” says Christ (Heb. 10:7). Service is the inevitable outcome of forgiveness by God. “How much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!” (Heb. 9:14, NIV).
Ironically, then, a focus on Christ’s priestly, heavenly work should lead us to be of tremendous practical, earthly service. The sacrifice Christ offered, which leads ultimately to a renewal of heaven as well as earth (Heb. 12:26; see also Rev. 21:1), was enacted here on earth. Likewise, our own service is performed here in the rough and tumble of everyday life. But we walk and work in this world in the confidence that Jesus has gone before us and completed the same journey we are on. This gives us confidence that our labor for him in every area of life will not be in vain.
We have used the NIV here because of a quirk in the NRSV translation, which reads “worship” instead of “serve.” “Worship” is indeed a possible translation of the Greek latreuein, which like the Hebrew abad can mean either “worship” or “serve.” But in this context, the NRSV is alone among the major translations in translating it as “worship.” The NIV, TNIV, NASB, KJV, and others render it here as “serve.”