Being Thankful for the Greater


Hebrews 7 & 8    Reader – Ceres Guererro

In her book The God Who Hung on the Cross, journalist Ellen Vaughn tells the gripping story of what happened when the message of Jesus first came to a village in northern Cambodia, in southeast Asia. In September 1999, Pastor Tuy Seng traveled to Kampong Thom Province and throughout that isolated area, most of the villagers worshipped any, or all, of the spirits that resided in nature, the departed souls of their deceased loved ones, or Buddha. Very few of the villagers had even heard of Christianity. But much to Pastor Seng’s surprise, when he arrived in that particular village, the people warmly embraced him and his gospel message about Jesus. When he asked the villagers why it was that they were so open to the gospel, an old woman shuffled forward, bowed, and grasped Pastor Seng’s hands and said, “We have been waiting for you for twenty years.” And then she told him about how 20 years before, in 1979, soldiers of the Khmer Rouge, that brutal, Communist-led regime which had taken over the rest of Cambodia, destroying everything in its path, finally descended on her village.

The Khmer Rouge soldiers immediately rounded up the villagers and forced them to start digging their own graves. After the villagers had finished digging, they prepared themselves to die. Some screamed to Buddha for help, others screamed to demon spirits, and others to their ancestors, but one of the women started to cry for help to a God who had hung on a cross and whom her mother had told her about when she was a child. So, on that day of the Khmer Rouge soldiers coming to her village, and looking at her own grave, that woman cried out for help to the God on a cross. She didn’t know that God or His name, but she reasoned that surely, because this God had known suffering, he would have compassion on their plight. Suddenly, that solitary woman’s cry became one great wail as all the other villagers started praying to the God who had suffered and hung on a cross. As they continued facing their own graves, their wailing slowly turned to a quiet crying and then there was an eerie silence which descended upon them in the muggy jungle air. Slowly, as the villagers dared to turn around and face their captors, they discovered that the soldiers were gone. Out of fear of what was transpiring in front of their eyes, the Khmer Rouge soldiers had fled.

The old woman explained to Pastor Seng that ever since that humid day, some 20 years before, the villagers had been waiting, waiting, for someone to come and share the story about the God who had hung on a cross and to reveal the identity of that God. When Pastor Seng told them about Jesus, they finally knew who the God on the cross was and it all made sense to them. Since Jesus had saved them from the Khmer Rouge soldiers those 20 years before, the villagers realized he could certainly save them from all their troubles.

Are we likewise that thankful that Jesus has saved us? As we have been preaching through the letter to the Hebrews this past month, we have read Jesus is greater than anyone and anything. Last week, we arrived at chapter 6, and there we read that Jesus has opened the door into God’s presence for us. People mistakenly, too casually, actually, in our New Age-influenced society, think of God as some sort of grandfather in the sky, a cosmic friend, who will welcome anyone into His presence, no matter what they have done or believe. Certainly, the concept that God will welcome people into His presence is found in no religion other than Christianity. But the teaching that everyone is welcomed into His presence by God, no matter what, is a false teaching. New Agers teach that no one is a sinner, that people are just emotionally damaged individuals in need of healing and being restored to what they were created to be (or, that evolution had made them to be). Such teaching claims there really is no difference between God and us (e.g. we can all become a god) but Christianity teaches otherwise, that Jesus died on the cross because of human sin, and that reality of sin prevented humans from entering into the presence of the holy and sinless God, in whose presence sin is not allowed. On the cross, Jesus took human sin away, replacing our filthy rags of sin with his robes of righteousness. It is through a person placing faith in Jesus that they enter into God’s presence.

Last week, we concluded with Hebrews 6:20b: “Jesus has become a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek”. A high priest was one who acted as a representative or mediator, the one who spoke to God on behalf of sinful people, asking for God’s forgiveness of them. Today, we continue on with that theme, but before we do that, I feel I should do a deep dive into some heavy theology by going to Genesis 14 where we first read about Melchizedek.

In that chapter, we read that Abraham (or, Abram, as he was then called for God had not yet changed his name to Abraham) had a nephew named Lot, a man who was continually making foolish decisions, starting with his decision to live in Sodom, a city located at the southern end of the Dead Sea. In that period of time, each town or city had a king, most of whom (it seems) were filled with testosterone, pride, and ambition as they were forever attacking other towns and cities, kidnapping their residents (making them their slaves), and taking their possessions (getting rich from them). So, it was that the kings of four other cities attacked the city of Sodom, took its residents and possessions, including Abraham’s nephew Lot. When Lot’s good old Uncle Abe heard what had happened, he sprang into action and put together a force of 318 fighting men and they all pursued Lot’s captors, eventually catching them several hundred kilometres north, in the area beyond Damascus, Syria. There, they defeated them. On the way back home south to Sodom, Abraham and his men stopped at a place midway, as a place known as “The Valley of the Kings”. There, they were greeted by the king of Salem, Melchizedek and thus Melchizedek enters the biblical text. Now, Genesis 14 doesn’t say precisely why Melchizedek was there to meet the returning conquerors but most likely he was friendly with the king of Sodom.

However, Melchizedek was not only was the king of Salem, he was also its priest and that would have the most likely reason he had gone out to The Valley of the Kings. It was to perform his priestly duties on behalf of God Most High. At that time, the custom was for the victorious army to offer sacrifices and give thanks to God for their victory. Thus, Melchizedek would have gone out to oversee the victorious army’s offerings being given to God Most High and, in his role as priest, act as the people’s mediator, their spokesperson, before God.

We are told that Melchizedek knew that Abraham had a special relationship with God Most High and so he singled him out for a blessing. In exchange, Abraham gave Melchizedek a tenth, a tithe, of everything he had. The significance of what happened in that exchange became clear to later Jews when they realized that Melchizedek had been greater than the father of their nation, Abraham. Also, in a deep spiritual insight, the later Jews realized that Melchizedek had been a priest, but not one in the orders of their priests, the Levites or the Aaronites. He was not in their family lines, but in his own order. In fact, the Levites and Aaronites both came out of Abraham’s loins and lineage, and because Abraham obviously considered Melchizedek to be of a greater stature than he, the later Jews came to regard Melchizedek in extremely high esteem.

This is heavy, I know, but, I am carrying on: In the sacrificial system used first in the tabernacle, a temporary tent structure that the Israelites carried around with them in their Sinai Desert wanderings and then throughout the period of the Judges, and then in the temple of Jerusalem, a permanent structure that replaced the tabernacle, the Levites would accept the offerings and sacrifices the people had made to God, and then hand them over to the Aaronites, of whom one of them would be the high priest. The high priest would then take those offerings and sacrifices into the tabernacle or temple and plead the people’s case before God, stating to Him that, with those offerings and sacrifices, the people had shown penance for their sins, and asking Him to please forgive them and be at peace with them, which He would agree to do.

However, once a year, on the Day of Atonement (which in Hebrew is called Yom Kippur), an event the anniversary of which was coincidentally-to-this-sermon observed this past week by Jews all over the world, the high priest would go into the tabernacle/temple room of sacrifices, a room called the Holy of Holies, where he would pull back a curtain 82.5 feet high and 24 feet wide which separated the Holy of Holies from a room called the Holy Place, the Holy Place being the room in which God dwelt. You see, no one could be in the presence of God. That was the purpose of that barrier, that curtain that divided the room into two rooms, the Holy of Holies where the priests did their normal duties and the Holy Place, where God resided, and where, one day a year the high priest was allowed to enter (on the Day of Atonement/Yom Kippur). So, in the Holy Place, the high priest would ask forgiveness for the people who had brought offerings and sacrifices, as well as forgiveness for his own sins. God would grant the high priest and the people bringing gifts forgiveness for the next year, and everyone would go home happy.

However, because the priests knew that they themselves were sinners, they had to undergo a series of ritual purification cleansings both before and after entering into God’s presence in the Holy Place. Insightfully, because of the possibility that the high priest would die while in God’s presence, other priests would have – prior to the high priest entering in – tied a rope around his ankle. That was in order to pull his body out in the event he died there. The other priests did not want to contaminate the Holy Place by entering into it themselves, nor did they want to risk their own lives by entering into God’s holy presence. It was a system fraught with difficulties.

In any case, the greatest high priest was considered by Jews to have been Melchizedek because Abraham, the father of Israel, had paid homage to him. Later prophets to Israel revealed that one greater than Melchizedek would be coming and that person would be the Messiah, which meant he would also be the eternal high priest, the person who would plead people’s cases before God. The end result would be eternal access to God. By the way, at the precise moment when Jesus died on the cross, the curtain separating the Holy of Holies from the Holy Place, was torn in two, spiritually symbolizing that Jesus, in his death, had destroyed any barrier preventing access with God.

This Melchizedek was king of Salem and priest of God Most High. He met Abraham returning from the defeat of the kings and blessed him, and Abraham gave him a tenth of everything. First, the name Melchizedek means “king of righteousness”; then also, “king of Salem” means “king of peace.” Without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, resembling the Son of God, he remains a priest forever. Just think how great he was: Even the patriarch Abraham gave him a tenth of the plunder! Now the law requires the descendants of Levi who become priests to collect a tenth from the people — that is, from their fellow Israelites — even though they also are descended from Abraham. This man, however, did not trace his descent from Levi, yet he collected a tenth from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises. And without doubt the lesser is blessed by the greater. In the one case, the tenth is collected by people who die; but in the other case, by him who is declared to be living. One might even say that Levi, who collects the tenth, paid the tenth through Abraham, because when Melchizedek met Abraham, Levi was still in the body of his ancestor. (Heb 7:1-10)

Ironically, it would not be a Levite priest, or an Aaronite high priest, or even Melchizedek the ultimate high priest, who would bring perfection in the people’s relationship with God. It would turn out to be a member of the tribe of Judah, the prophets also revealed, who would be the eternal mediator doing that. Because only God is divine and thus the only one who is perfect, God resolved the problem of human sin which had been preventing humans from entering into His holy presence. He did this by sending his son, who was given the human name of Jesus, which means “he saves”, a prefiguring that he would be dealing with the human sin problem. As the fully divine God on earth who came into a fully human form, only Jesus had the ability to bridge that gap.

You have maybe seen the Evangelism Explosion booklets which had two little drawings on it. In the first drawing are humans standing on one side of a cliff and God on the other side, and in between them was a deep chasm that they had no way of crossing over. In the second drawing are the same two groups, humans on one side and God on the other, but bridging the chasm is the cross of Christ and people are crossing over that bridge to God on the other side. Now, the Old Covenant served a purpose in identifying the problem of human sin that separated people from God. But that Old Covenant sacrificial system was imperfect. Wisely, in the Old Covenant sacrificial system, the people sought perfection in their relationship with God and in their lives, but such could never come about through the Old Covenant system of sacrifices, offerings, and priests.

If perfection could have been attained through the Levitical priesthood — and indeed the law given to the people established that priesthood — why was there still need for another priest to come, one in the order of Melchizedek, not in the order of Aaron? For when the priesthood is changed, the law must be changed also. He of whom these things are said belonged to a different tribe, and no one from that tribe has ever served at the altar. For it is clear that our Lord descended from Judah, and in regard to that tribe Moses said nothing about priests. And what we have said is even more clear if another priest like Melchizedek appears, one who has become a priest not on the basis of a regulation as to his ancestry but on the basis of the power of an indestructible life. For it is declared: “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.” (Hebrews 7:11-17; Psalm 110:4)

This is heavy theology, eh? But we must recognize that Jesus is not like Aaron, or Levi, or Abraham, or Melchizedek, or Buddha, or Mohammed, or any spirits in nature, or any deceased relatives’ spirits, which are worshipped. Jesus is unique for, through him alone, we have access to God Most High.

Ok, now to lighten things up for a moment. How many of you have seen the hilarious movie “Bean: The Ultimate Disaster Movie” when it appeared in theatres back in 1997 or on tv since then? In that movie, Mr. Bean was an incompetent art gallery guard who his bosses wanted a break from, so they decided to give him the task of delivering the famous painting “Whistler’s Mother” from their gallery in England to a gallery in the United States. However, in typical Mr. Bean fashion, he ruined the “Whistler’s Mother” painting and then tried fixing it before anyone noticed. Here are the before and after paintings.

Project two images of Whistler’s Mother painting:

Well, a real-life variation of that occurred in 2012. For nearly 100 years, a beautiful painting of Jesus held a prominent place as a mural painted onto a wall in the Sanctuary of Mercy Church in Borja, Spain. The “Ecce Homo” (“Behold the Man”) mural had been painted by artist Elias Garcia Martinez in the 1930’s but after decades of moisture buildup, it had started to deteriorate, and the colors were fading. So, Cecilia Gimenez, an 80-year-old church member, took it upon herself to restore the painting to its former glory. However, despite her good intentions, the restoration didn’t turn out well. The New York Times said that it was “probably the worst art restoration project of all time.” A Spanish blog called it “the restoration that turned into destruction.” And, a BBC article said, “The once-dignified portrait now resembles a crayon sketch of a very hairy monkey in an ill-fitting tunic.”

Project three images of “Ecce Homo”

Ms. Gimenez defended her attempt to improve upon the image of Jesus. We might laugh at that but, the same sort of thing has been happening on a spiritual level throughout Christian history. For example, the Jewish Christians to whom the letter of Hebrews was written had been taught false teachings that urged them to improve upon Jesus. They had been taught that he was not good enough to bring them into God’s presence, that they needed to worship angels, listen to the Jewish leaders of old, and bring sacrifices and offerings to the temple in Jerusalem. The image of Jesus which those Hebrew believers were being falsely taught was that Jesus alone was not good enough for salvation. But those were false teachings. Jesus cannot be improved upon. He is great, the “greater” than, the greatest. He was so great that, just as he predicted, the old temple sacrificial system which was run by imperfect humans would be replaced by his own sacrifice. More on that in a moment…

The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless (for the law made nothing perfect), and a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God. And it was not without an oath! Others became priests without any oath. But he became a priest with an oath when God said to him: “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind: ‘You are a priest forever.’” (Psalm 110:4) Because of this oath, Jesus has become the guarantor of a better covenant. (Hebrews 7:18-22)

The Old Covenant priests all died, and their ministry ended. At the time Hebrews was being written, the Old Covenant ceremonies were still taking place at the temple in Jerusalem but that was just a few short years before the Roman army would, in 70 A.D., destroy the city and the temple, thus ending forever the sacrificial system. By the way, any talk of a Third temple being built in Jerusalem is nonsense. It is not biblical and God will not allow it to happen for doing so would be a desecration of what Jesus did on the cross, when his body which he called the new temple of God, was put to death. In any case,

Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore, he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them. Such a high priest truly meets our need — one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself. For the law appoints, as high priests, men in all their weakness; but the oath, which came after the law, appointed the Son, who has been made perfect forever. (Hebrews 7:23-28)

A mediator is someone who inserts themselves between two parties to reconcile any, and all, differences in order to come up with a resolution to a problem. Our eternal mediator is Jesus. Though divine, he became human and having given up his place in heaven, he experienced humanity’s physical limitations of hunger, thirst, and cold. He knows what it’s like to be joyful and sad. He was betrayed and felt dejection, disappointment, and discouragement, as well as temptation.

For there is one God and one mediator between God and humankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people. (1 Timothy 2:5-6a)

As long as we have accepted Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord, He will be our great High Priest, interceding for us until that day when we are with Him forever. Thank God for His Son, our perfect High Priest.

Now the main point of what we are saying is this: We do have such a high priest, who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, and who serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by a mere human being. Every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices, and so it was necessary for this one also to have something to offer. If he were on earth, he would not be a priest, for there are already priests who offer the gifts prescribed by the law. They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. This is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: “See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.” (Ex 25:40) But in fact, the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, since the new covenant is established on better promises. For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another. But God found fault with the people and said: “The days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they did not remain faithful to my covenant, and I turned away from them, declares the Lord. This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” (Jer 31:31-34) By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear. (Heb 8:1-13)

In the New Covenant, the Lord writes His laws upon the hearts of His people. “I will be their God, and they shall be my people”. In his Last Supper with his disciples, Jesus said how this would be possible.

While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. (Matthew 26:26-28)

Out with the old, in with the new. Are we thankful for that? Like the villagers in Cambodia who worship with thanksgiving the God on the cross for His salvation, we need to be thankful this Thanksgiving Day.

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