As I’ve been preaching through the book of Hebrews I’ve often wondered to myself: What does this book have to do with life in 2014? Its language seems so foreign and its images so distant and its symbolism so strange. We live in a world where a man has walked on the moon. We wake up each day to a life dominated by computer technology and threats of nuclear terrorism. And when we get sick we have antibiotics within arm’s reach. All this talk of high priests and blood sacrifices and ceremonial defilement and some guy named Melchizedek makes me wonder whether it’s really of practical benefit to study this book.
My guess is that some of you have asked yourselves the same question and, sadly, have responded by closing your Bible, setting it to the side, believing it to be irrelevant to life in this fast-paced, highly-mechanized, sin-saturated and secular world of ours. But others of you, and I hope it’s most, know that God controls and directs history and in doing so providentially orchestrates earlier events in order to reveal himself and the truth about how we might be reconciled to him. You have come to know that these odd-sounding ancient rituals and symbols and religious activities were designed by God to prepare us for the coming of Jesus Christ and the eternal life that is to be found in him alone.
In order to make this point crystal clear, I want you to look with me at Hebrews 9:13-14.
“For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (Heb. 9:13-14).
You know what your conscience is. It’s that spiritual dimension of the image of God indelibly imprinted on our souls by which we feel guilt and conviction when we do wrong and joy and comfort when we do right. It is that facet or function of our souls by which our moral deeds, be they good or evil, are subjectively registered within. Everyone has a conscience, even non-Christians who have not yet been born again by the Spirit.
And everyone knows exactly what I’m talking about when I refer to those occasions when your conscience feels dirty.
I’m talking about what you feel and sense deep within as you lie on your bed at night and reflect back on the events of the day: the harsh words you spoke to your kids, the lie that you told your boss hoping to gain advancement; the pride you felt in your heart when someone praised your efforts.
I’m talking about what you feel and sense deep within when you wake up in the morning and lustful thoughts and sinful fantasies race through your mind.
I’m talking about what you feel and sense deep within when you navigate your way through the day without giving God so much as an afterthought.
I’m talking about what you feel and sense deep within when you passed over in silence that incredible opportunity to share your faith and explain the gospel to a friend or co-worker or neighbor.
I’m talking about what you feel and sense deep within when you reflect on your life as a whole and all you see is one failure after another, one shattered dream after another, one devastating relationship after another, one sin after another.
I’m talking about what you feel and sense deep within when you consider how infinitely holy and pure and righteous God is and how immeasurably unholy and impure and unrighteous you are.
I’m talking about what you feel and sense deep within as you try to figure out what you can do to bridge the gap between you and God; what you can say or promise or make up for so that God will love you and accept you.
I’m talking about what happens in your heart when you finally realize that not all the good works in the world or charitable gifts to the United Way or days spent serving in the soup kitchen at your city’s rescue mission will enable you to measure up.
Now here’s what’s remarkable. As different as our world is today from the world of the Old Testament when the tabernacle still stood, the most fundamental problem of the human heart is the same. The most basic need of the human heart remains unchanged. In spite of our technological advances and the internet and our breaking of the genetic code and the existence of automobiles and deodorant and indoor plumbing, the most basic and fundamental and pressing need of your heart and of mine is no different from what it was for those Israelites who lived during the OT when the tabernacle and later the temple were standing and in full operation.
And what is that problem? A dirty conscience. A defiled spirit. A stained soul. A heart that feels wicked and wayward and for all its efforts can’t seem to make its way back to God.
Isn’t it fascinating that even after you spend an evening with your family parked in front of the TV or staring at your computer or drowning your pain in alcohol or reading a book or checking the results of movement in the stock market you are still wrestling with one core struggle and seeking an answer to one essential question:
How can I come to God and be received by him and reconciled to him when I feel so dirty? How can I be at peace with God when my conscience incessantly stabs at me with reminders of sin and lust and greed and ambition and selfishness and idolatry?
What we are reading in Hebrews 9 is the only answer, the only solution to that problem. The only thing that will purify your conscience so that you can enjoy God and know that he enjoys you is “the blood of Christ” (v. 14).
And from what is our conscience purified or cleansed? “Dead works” (v. 14b). He has in mind everything we have ever done thinking that it would redeem our souls; everything we’ve ever said hoping that our words would turn away God’s wrath; everything we ever gave or sacrificed or promised or turned away from thinking that it would put our conscience and heart and mind at rest. They are “dead” because they have no power to reconcile us to God. They are “dead” because they come from hearts that are devoid of spiritual life. They are “dead” because they leave us feeling hopeless that anything could ever set us free from the condemning power of sin and guilt.
And it is only from a pure conscience, one made right and clean by the blood of Christ, that we can then serve God and love him and glorify him in the way that he originally designed when he created us.
Do you want another word in place of “dead works”? I’ll give you one: Religion! Religion is the attempt to motivate people to do “good works” on the basis of their feelings of guilt. The gospel calls people to “good works” on the basis of the forgiveness of guilt!
Religion says: “You’re obviously feeling guilty and dirty and defiled. So here’s what you need to do: go to work for God! Give more. Pray more. Serve more.”
The Gospel says: “The problem isn’t that you ‘feel’ guilty. The problem is that you ‘are’ guilty! So here’s what you need to do: receive by faith the work God in Christ has already done for you!”
Are you still paralyzed by a dirty conscience? Does that feeling of moral stain on your soul leave you in despair and hopelessness? There is only one solution; only one thing that can cleanse and make you whole: the blood of Jesus Christ shed at the cross for sinners like you and me.
Charles Simeon was born in 1759 and died in 1836. He remembered well his conversion to Christ. It happened as he read about what happened on the Day of Atonement when the High Priest laid his hands on the scapegoat, symbolizing the transfer of guilt from the people of Israel to the sacrificial offering.
“The thought came into my mind,” said Simeon, “‘What, may I transfer all my guilt to another? Has God provided an Offering for me, that I may lay my sins on his head?’ Then, God willing, I will not bear them on my soul one moment longer. Accordingly I sought to lay my sins upon the sacred head of Jesus” (cited by F. F. Bruce, 194).
You can do the same today and forever be cleansed and set free from a dirty conscience.