The Only Way In Which Sins Can Be Forgiven
9:15-22 It is through him that there emerges a new covenant between God and man; and the purpose behind this new covenant is that those who have been called might receive the eternal inheritance which has been promised to them; but this could happen only after a death had taken place, the purpose of which was to rescue them from the consequences of the transgressions which had been committed under the conditions of the old covenant. For where there is a will, it is necessary that there should be evidence of the death of the testator before the will is valid. It is in the case of dead people that a will is confirmed, since surely it cannot be operative when the testator is still alive. That is why even the first covenant was not inaugurated without blood. For, after every commandment which the law lays down had been announced by Moses to all the people, he took the blood of calves and goats, together with water and scarlet and hyssop, and sprinkled the book itself and all the people. And as he did so, he said: "This is the blood of the covenant whose conditions God commanded you to observe." In like manner he sprinkled with blood the tabernacle also and all the instruments used in its worship. Under the conditions which the law lays down it is true to say that almost everything is cleansed by blood. Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.
This is one of the most difficult passages in the whole letter, although it would not be difficult to those who read the letter for the first time, for its methods of argument and expression and categories of thought would be familiar to them.
As we have seen, the idea of the covenant is basic to the thought of the writer, by which he meant a relationship between God and man. The first covenant was dependent on man's keeping of the law; as soon as he broke the law the covenant became ineffective. Let us remember that to our writer religion means access to God. Therefore, the basic meaning of the new covenant, which Jesus inaugurated, is that men should have access to God or, to put it another way, have fellowship with him. But here is the difficulty. Men come to the new covenant already stained with the sins committed under the old covenant, for which the old sacrificial system was powerless to atone. So, the writer to the Hebrews has a tremendous thought and says that the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is retroactive. That is to say, it is effective to wipe out the sins of men committed under the old covenant and to inaugurate the fellowship promised under the new.
All that seems very complicated but at the back of it there are two great eternal truths. First, the sacrifice of Jesus gains forgiveness for past sins. We ought to be punished for what we have done and shut out from God; but because of what Jesus did the debt is wiped out, the breach is forgiven and the barrier is taken away. Second, the sacrifice of Jesus opens a new life for the future. It opens the way to fellowship with God. The God whom our sins had made a stranger, the sacrifice of Christ has made a friend. Because of what he did the burden of the past is rolled away and life becomes life with God.
It is the next step in the argument which appears to us a fantastic way in which to argue. The question in the mind of the writer is why this new relationship with God should involve the death of Christ. He answers it in two ways.
(i) His first answer is--to us almost incredibly--founded on nothing other than a play on words. We have seen that the use of the word diatheke ( Greek #1242 ) in the sense of covenant is characteristically Christian, and that its normal secular use was in the sense of will or testament. Up to Hebrews 9:16 the writer to the Hebrews has been using diatheke ( Greek #1242 ) in the normal Christian sense of covenant; then, suddenly and without warning or explanation, he switches to the sense of will. Now a will does not become operative until the testator dies; so the writer to the Hebrews says that no diatheke ( Greek #1242 ), will, can be operative until the death of the testator so that the new diatheke ( Greek #1242 ), covenant, cannot become operative apart from the death of Christ. That is a merely verbal argument and is quite unconvincing to a modern mind; but it must be remembered that this founding of an argument on a play between two meanings of a word was a favourite method of the Alexandrian scholars in the time when this letter was written. In fact this very argument would have been considered in the days when the letter to the Hebrews was written an exceedingly clever piece of exposition.
(ii) His second answer goes back to the Hebrew sacrificial system and to Leviticus 17:11 : "The life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it for you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement." "Without the shedding of blood there can be no atonement for sin," was actually a well-known Hebrew principle. So the writer to the Hebrews goes back to the inauguration of the first covenant under Moses, the occasion when the people accepted the law as the condition of their special relationship with God. We are told how sacrifice was made and how Moses "took half of the blood and put it in basins; and half of the blood he threw against the altar." After the book of the law had been read and the people had signified their acceptance of it, Moses "took the blood and threw it upon the people, and said, 'Behold the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words'" ( Exodus 24:1-8 ). It is true that the memory of the writer to the Hebrews of that passage is not strictly accurate. He introduces calves and goats and scarlet and hyssop which come from the ritual of The Day of Atonement and he talks about the sprinkling of the Tabernacle, which at that time had not yet been built; but the reason is that these things are so much in his mind. His basic idea is that there can be no cleansing and no ratification of any covenant without the shedding of blood. Why that should be so he does not need to know. Scripture says it is so and that is enough for him. The probable reason is that blood is life, as the Hebrew saw it, and life is the most precious thing in the world; and man must offer his most precious thing to God.
All that goes back to a ritual which is only of antiquarian interest. But behind it there is an eternal principle--Forgiveness is a costly thing. Human forgiveness is costly. A son or a daughter may go wrong and a father or a mother may forgive; but that forgiveness brings tears, whiteness to the hair, lines to the face, a cutting anguish and then a long dull ache to the heart. It does not cost nothing. Divine forgiveness is costly. God is love but he is also holiness. He least of all can break the great moral laws on which the universe is built. Sin must have its punishment or the very structure of life disintegrates. And God alone can pay the terrible price that is necessary before men can be forgiven. Forgiveness is never a case of saying: "It's all right; it doesn't matter." It is the most costly thing in the world. Without the shedding of heart's blood there can be no forgiveness of sins. Nothing brings a man to his senses with such arresting violence as to see the effect of his sin on someone who loves him in this world or on the God who loves him for ever, and to say to himself: "It cost that to forgive my sin." Where there is forgiveness someone must be crucified.
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