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True Guilt, True Cleansing – Hebrews 10:1-18

A sermon on Hebrews 10:1-18. 

Audio here (recording failed at church, re-recorded at home).

Out, damned spot! out, I say!

Lady Macbeth’s line is one of Shakespeare’s most famous.  In the first act of Macbeth she helps her husband to murder the King and by the end of the play she is in mental torment and eventually takes her own life.  In her final scene she is before a doctor and cannot cleanse her conscience.

Out, damned spot! out, I say!... who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?   ...What, will these hands ne’er be clean?...Here’s the smell of the blood still; all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh, oh, oh!

The Doctor says

What a sigh is there! The heart is sorely charg’d. ...This disease is beyond my practice.

Shame and guilt is a disease.  And it’s a disease beyond the practice of 17th century doctors.  It’s beyond the practice of 21st century doctors.  Cleansing away our guilt and shame is beyond every power on earth.

But it’s what this chapter is all about.  Verse 2 – it’s about being cleansed and no longer feeling guilty for our sins.  Verse 3 – it’s about not being reminded of our sins.

Instead, v10, it’s about being made holy.  Verse 11, having our sins taken away.  Verse 14, being made perfect.  Verse 17 – our sins and lawless acts remembered no more.  Verse 18 – it’s about forgiveness.

It’s a passage all about sin and shame, cleansing and forgiveness.  It’s a passage about whether your sins are forever remembered, or forever forgotten.  It’s a passage about guilt.

Do you feel guilty?

Now as I ask that question there’s a big danger.  Those who should feel guilty, often don’t.  And those who shouldn’t, often do.  So as I ask “Do you feel guilty?” there will be some of you who, personality wise, are virtually impervious to feeling ashamed.  You’re just you and that’s the way you are.  And there’ll be some of you who, personality wise, almost never feel anything but guilty.  Our feelings about guilt are so unreliable, which is why this chapter is so helpful.  Because this chapter will help us to make sure our feelings are anchored in reality, and not just in personality.

But so long as we’re aware that there’s such a thing as false guilt – and that’s wrong – what about true guilt.  Do you feel guilty?

You know there’s a trick that preachers can pull to make you feel guilty.  We can confess to one or two old sins of ours that are embarrassing and we can say – “I’m sure you’ve got embarrassing sins that you keep locked in your basement too, don’t you?”  And I could make you dwell on your past right now and there’d be a handful of things in your past for which you felt shame.  And it would usually be that misuse of alcohol, or that misuse of sex, or that misuse of a friend, or those words you said that you would immediately bring to mind.  Now if you are wracked with guilt about individual sins listen in to this chapter because there is liberation from all guilt here in Hebrews 10.  But the guilt we’re mainly talking about in this chapter is not about that one sin or those half-dozen sins, or even those wilderness years of back-sliding.  The guilt we’re talking about is the all-pervading knowledge that in myself, I am utterly unfit for God’s presence.

Because the context for these 18 verses is all about “drawing near” to God.  It’s not the guilt that comes when you’re doing the washing up and you remember that awful thing you did.  It’s the dread feeling of being summoned, not just into the Headmaster’s office, not just summoned before a magistrate, but summoned before the Judge of all the world.  This is about the problem of guilt not just because it causes unpleasant feelings, but it’s about the problem of guilt because we are summoned into God’s presence.

Look at the last six words of verse 1 – we’re talking about “those who draw near to worship”.  And in v22 he tells us the outcome of all this teaching: “[therefore]... let us draw near to God.”

Drawing near to God is mentioned 7 times in Hebrews.  And at the same time, chapter 10 verse 31:

It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

Draw near – but if you happen to be His enemy it’s a dreadful thing.  Draw near – but, chapter 12 verse 29 – our God is a consuming fire.  Draw near – but He is a furnace of goodness, beauty, truth and holiness.  But draw near.

The kind of guilt we’re talking about in Hebrews 10 is the knowledge that when we’re summoned into the presence of the consuming Fire, we’re not up to it.

As a very small example there’s the story of Bobby Moore who captained England to world cup success in 1966.  As he walked up the steps of Wembley to receive the trophy from the Queen with her immaculate white gloves on, Bobby was desperately trying to wipe his hands clean on his football shirt.  If he wasn’t meeting the Queen he wouldn’t have given two hoots about his hands.  Who cares, he’s just won the world cup.  But in the presence of purity, that’s when his uncleanness mattered.

It’s the same with us. It’s in the presence of divine purity – that’s when our sin and guilt really matters.  And it’s fascinating to see that in the bible the times when people are most convicted of their sin are not times when they focus on what they’ve done.  It’s simply when they’ve had an experience of God.

At the end of the book of Job, Job has an appearance of the LORD.  And throughout the book the focus has been on how upright Job is, he’s a ‘stand up guy’ as American gangsters would say, upright, blameless, good guy.  He’s a friend of the LORD, the LORD is really proud of Job.  But after Job experiences the LORD in His power and majesty, Job says this:

5 My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. 6 Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes."  (Job 42:5)

“I despise myself” says Job.  By comparison with the LORD – upright Job falls flat on his face, confesses himself to be a sinner and says “I despise myself”.

And that’s healthy.  I know what you’re thinking – you’re thinking Job has bad self-esteem here and that’s a bad thing.  No, no.  Job is not really esteeming himself at all – He’s esteeming the LORD.  He’s seeing the LORD for who He is and Job is rightly saying, compared to Him “I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”  That’s a right and good and psychologically really healthy thing.

Now there is a wrong despising of self.  There is someone who is not looking at the LORD at all, they’re looking at themselves and they are self-absorbed and with their gaze fixed firmly on their belly-button they are despising themselves.  We’ve all been there, some more than others.  And it’s wrong.  But mainly it’s wrong for where the self-hater is looking. The self-hater should get their eyes off themselves, and we should be encouraging them to get their eyes off themselves and saying – “Oh you’re much worse than you think.  But you’re also much more loved than you could imagine – look to Jesus.”

So there’s a wrong despising of self, when you’re focussed on yourself.  There is a right despising of self – when you’re focussed on the LORD.

Isaiah has a similar experience.  In Isaiah 6, he sees the LORD in the temple seated on the throne, high and lifted up, the angels are calling out ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’, the temple is shaking, smoke is everywhere and Isaiah cries out:

5 "Woe to me!  I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty."

Isaiah wasn’t feeling particularly sinful... until he saw the King.  Then he said “Woe to me, I’m ruined!”

Or think of Peter fishing with Jesus in Luke chapter 5.  He’s in the boat with the LORD of Isaiah chapter 6.  And they have a miraculous catch of fish. And Luke 5 verse 5 says:

When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus' knees and said, "Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!"

Peter confesses to being a sinner when he sees the glory of Jesus.  Peter hasn’t just remembered some sins from his murky past.  He’s not even thinking about his sins, he is simply looking at Jesus and saying “I do not match up.”

What about you?  You are summoned to draw near to God.  To draw near to the consuming Fire.  Do you feel guilty?  Guilt is a real problem.  And it needs a real answer.  But where will we find an answer?

Lady Macbeth’s doctor said the disease of guilt was beyond his practice.  It’s beyond medical practice, it’s beyond psychological practice, it’s even beyond religious practice.  In fact religion doesn’t help at ALL with shame and guilt.  This chapter will tell us that actually religion feeds off of and produces more shame and guilt.

Look down at verse 1.  It’s discussing the old testament law of God with its rituals and priests and sacrifices.

The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming-- not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship.  2 If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshippers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. 3 But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, 4 because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.

Do you see what these verses are saying?  God’s own religion did not cleanse people from sin – it only reminded them of sin.  Every day animal blood was shed and everyone knows animals can’t pay for my sin.  Every year there was this grand theatrical performance called the Day of Atonement.  The High Priest had a starring role and there was a scapegoat that you confessed your sins over and there were sacrifices and at the end it was pronounced that God was “at one” with Israel.  But of course then they did it all over again next year.  They weren’t cleansed from their sins, they were only reminded of their sins.

That’s because all of this religious stuff was only, v1, a shadow of the coming reality. It wasn’t the real atonement, it wasn’t the real sacrifice, it wasn’t the real high priest.  All of that was to come when Jesus came into the world.  The cross was the reality and the Old Testament rituals were the shadow cast by the cross.

And the people of the Old Testament knew that, and those that didn’t should have known.  That’s why in verses 5-10, the writer takes us back to Psalm 40, and tells us that the Old Testament kept proclaiming to the people that their sacrifices were only a shadow.

5 Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said: [and then he quotes from Psalm 40] "Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; 6 with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased. 7 Then I said,`Here I am--it is written about me in the scroll--I have come to do your will, O God.'" 8 First he said, "Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them" (although the law required them to be made). 9 Then he said, "Here I am, I have come to do your will." He sets aside the first to establish the second. 10 And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

So Psalm 40 was written by King David.  But King David as he’s always doing in the Psalms – he’s speaking the words of the ultimate King, the ultimate Righteous Ruler.  He’s speaking as Christ.  And he says, v5, sacrifice and offering you did not desire.  Which is an extraordinary verse to have lying around in the Old Testament.  In the midst of those millions of sacrificed animals, Christ gets up and says “This is not what the Father really desires.  Not deep down.”  No, the real sacrifice is when Christ says, v7 ,`Here I am--it is written about me in the scroll--I have come to do your will, O God.'

Here is a walking, talking, willing sacrifice.  And He’s the King of Kings, the Christ, the Son of God.  He steps forward amidst all the bloodshed of the temple and says “Enough, Here I am, the Reality to which these shadows have pointed.”  So verse 9 he sets aside the first shadowy covenant and established the new covenant.  So verse 10 ‘we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ.’

Millions of animals unwittingly went to their death but it only reminded us of our sin, it was only a shadow.  On Good Friday, Christ stepped forward as the Lamb of God and once and for all was sacrificed to deal with sin for all time.  Job cried out “I despise myself.”  Well on the cross, Jesus endured infinite despisings.  Isaiah cried out, “Woe to me, I’m unclean.”  Well on the cross, Jesus endured infinite woe and became hideously unclean for us.  Peter cried out, “Depart from me Lord I’m a sinful man.”  Well on the cross Jesus was thrust from the presence of God and counted the worst sinner.

And what have you felt guilt about in the past?  Put it onto Jesus.  Guilty about gossip – Jesus died the death of a filthy slanderer.  Guilty about lust – Jesus died the death of a foul pornographer.  Guilty about how you’ve treated friends or family – He died the death of the murderer, the adulterer, the liar, the thief, the sinner of sinners.  His blood was shed, the blood of God – as Acts 20 calls it.  God saw and was satisfied.  And Jesus cried out “Finished.”  That was His last word on the cross.  “Finished.  Done.  Paid for.  It’s over.  It’s complete.”  Not another drop of blood needs to be shed.  Not another ounce of guilt needs be felt.  It was paid for, judged, cleansed, put away forever on that cross 2000 years ago.

You know there’s all the difference in the world between living in the shadow lands of that guilt laden life of perpetual striving and the once for all reality of Christ’s finished work.  And so in the next paragraph our writer just lays out the difference between the REALITY of Christ’s sacrifice and the SHADOW of the old covenant.  Read with me from verse 11:

11 Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12 But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. 13 Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool, 14 because by one sacrifice he has made perfect for ever those who are being made holy.

Let me highlight three differences from these verses:

The old sacrifices were continual, Christ’s was once for all

If I told you that this summer I’m sitting my A-levels maths again, you’d get the idea that I wasn’t very good at maths.  15th time lucky! If you have to do it again, it means you didn’t do it right the first time.  Christ did it right.  His final cry on that cross was “Finished.”  Because when Christ does the job, He does it right.

And that’s the second difference, the old sacrifices were ineffectual, Christ’s was completely effective.  He did what all the old sacrifices pointed to but never achieved.

Imagine in the maths exam I’m staring at my paper in incomprehension, my head in my hands.  The examiner comes over to me and says, “Having trouble?”  I go “Uh-huh!”  He says, “Move over.”  He gets out his pen and says “Here am I, it was written about me in the ancient prophecies, I have come to do God’s will.”  (Illustrations are hard ok.  It’s not as easy as you might think to dream up illustrations.  Work with me on this…) He sits down next to me and answers all the questions perfectly, in my place, on my behalf, under my name.  I say “Is this allowed?”  He says “I’m the examiner.”

Well on the cross, Christ earns for us a perfect standing with God.  That’s what v14 says “he has made perfect for ever those who are being made holy.”  Perfect in our standing with God.  Does that mean perfect morally?  No!  We’re still being made holy – that’s what v14 says.  We are still very much works in progress and we sin every day.  But we have a perfect mark in God’s exam because Christ has earned us a perfect mark.  We are perfect in our standing with God.

And so the third difference.  The old priests stood for their constant work, Christ sits having completed the work.

That’s what we remembered on Thursday.  Ascension Day was the day when Christ our perfect sacrifice ascended from among us to go and SIT (v12) at God’s right hand.

If your Old Testament priest sat down and didn’t do any more sacrificing you’d be really annoyed!  You’d say ‘Oi, Aaron, we pay you to work not to sit around.  Get busy.’ Christ sits because the job is done.

For those of you who are sitting exams this summer, the time will come at the end of your final exam when the examiner will say “Pens down.”  And the pen will fall from your gnarled hand and you’ll hand in your paper and the summer will officially begin.  Do others remember finishing your final exams and the stress of it all slinks off your shoulders and you immediately shift into summer mode.

The bible wants you to feel that way spiritually.  God wants you to feel that way tonight.  Spiritually we so often feel like we’re in revision mode.  With revision you can always do more and you can never know if you’ve revised enough because you don’t know what they’re going to ask you.  So you walk around with this low-level guilt because you know you’re not doing all you could.  Do you ever feel like that spiritually?  As though the spiritual verdict on your life is “could do better?”  Or “must try harder.”   That’s the way of religion.  That’s the way of shame and guilt.  That’s not why Jesus came?  Jesus came to do away with religion, to do away with the old shadows, and the ineffectual sacrifices.  He came to sit your exam, to pass with flying colours and to say “Pens down, the summer begins.”  He says to each one of us “Stop striving immediately.  And never start again.  I have MADE you PERFECT, are you trying to improve on my perfection.  Stop it.  Pens down, let the summer begin.”

Perhaps some of you have been living with a low-grade fever of guilt all your life.  Or just a general sense that God’s a bit miffed with you.  Some of you have specific sins that the devil keeps throwing in your face.  You need to throw them onto Jesus.  You need to see them paid for.  You need to hear Christ say “finished” once again.

And verses 15-18 will help us with that.  Here the writer returns to a favourite passage of his.  He quotes again from Jeremiah chapter 31.  Read with me from verse 15:

15 The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First he says: 16 "This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds." 17 Then he adds: "Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more." 18 And where these have been forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin.

Imagine debts piling up, you pay off one credit card with another.  The debts snowball and suddenly you’re £90 000 in the red.  You have no idea how it’s happened but you’re almost a hundred grand in debt.  The debt collectors are after you.  You don’t answer the phone, you pretend you’re not in. Eventually you get some financial advice and they tell you you need to phone the credit card company and tell them your situation.  You pluck up courage, you give your details over the phone and say “Now, about the £90 000, I’ll try to pay it pack, I just need some time...”  The woman on the other end of the phone says “We have no record of any debts in your name.”  You ask her to double check.  She double checks, “We have no record of any debts in your name.”

Now look at verse 17.  And realise that God the Holy Spirit Himself is speaking these words to you right now: God says “Your sins and lawless acts I will remember NO MORE.”

And frankly that’s the way it has to be.  There can be NO sin between us and the consuming Fire.  If we are found to have ANY sin against us when we draw near to God we must be thrust into outer darkness.  It’s all or nothing.  We either appear before God perfect or we can’t appear at all.  But through the sacrifice of Christ we have been perfected. And therefore we have this assurance “Our sins and lawless acts God remembers NO MORE.”

In Psalm 130, the Psalmist prays:

3 If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? 4 But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared.

The Psalm ends like this:

7 O Israel, put your hope in the LORD, for with the LORD is unfailing love and with him is full redemption. 8 He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins.

The Psalmist was looking forward to the full redemption.  Not just the shadow but the reality.  The true sacrifice, the true priest, the true atonement.  Christ redeeming us from ALL our sins.

Do you feel guilty?  If you haven’t yet come to Christ and said “Lord Jesus, be My Sacrifice, My Priest, My Lord” then you need to.  Look to His cross, where the sacrifice was made once and for all and say to God – Don’t look at me God, I’m a sinner.  Look at Jesus.  Accept me because of Jesus.”

If you are a Christian, why do you feel guilty?  If there are people you need to make peace with, go and sort that out.  But if you’ve confessed to God, know that the blood of Jesus purifies from every sin.  Don’t try to clean yourself up before drawing near to Jesus.  Come to Him for the bath.


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