Meditations in Hebrews 13: 65. Strengthened by Grace
Heb 13:9b It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by ceremonial foods, which are of no value to those who eat them.
Relevant? I suspect that for many of us, when we come to a verse like this we think it is of little relevance because it talks of something – ceremonial foods – that was part of their lives back then when this was written but is not something for today. Fair enough. However, as this verse has stayed on my radar I conclude that actually it is very important for our lives today. Perhaps we should deal with the Jewish-Christian context language and pictures that are used, first of all, and then go on to see modern parallels for us as Christians.
Clean? I like the version of verse 9 that says: “Your spiritual strength comes as a gift from God, not from ceremonial rules about eating certain foods—a method which, by the way, hasn’t helped those who have tried it!” i.e. there were various of Moses’ Laws that referred to clean or unclean foods and, although people like the Pharisees insisted these were important, they didn’t seem to work very well and Jesus insisted that ‘cleanness’ was about an inner thing not an outward observance and, anyway, keeping those rules had not produced a holy people.
In the Tabernacle? But then our writer says something even more irrelevant by today’s standards: “We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat.” (v.10) Pardon? What does that mean? Well the priests ate at the altar and so in this analogy the writer says we have a place where we eat (or fellowship) with God that those who served in the tabernacle in the Old Testament under the old covenant, could not eat. They went through the outward rituals (like the cleansing and worshipping rituals) but in reality that did not seem to bring them closer to God. Our ‘altar’ is the Cross. The physical altar was the place where the sacrifice was offered and the NT teaching is that Christ was the ‘Lamb of God’ offered for the ‘sacrifice of sins’ that we have considered previously. Altars have no place in Christianity for they are reminiscent of the old covenant.
Blood & a Carcass? He goes on, “The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp.” (v.11) It gets worse! But remember this was originally for a Jewish-Christian congregation, so let’s try to understand how they would have understood it. Yes, there were two parts to this procedure. The blood of the animal, which represents its life power, was taken into the Most Holy Place to say to God, a life has been given to allow this access. That was to prefigure the work of Christ, giving up his life on the Cross. But then the remaining physical body of the animal was taken outside the camp and burned there, almost as if to say, the physical body of this creature is of no importance, it is its life that is important.
The writer then explains the application: “And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood.” (v.12) Jesus’ physical body was taken outside the city and there he was crucified in a place of disgrace, as a criminal. It appeared, we might say, that God was giving up on the body of Christ, allowing it to be destroyed just like the old covenant practice, but in reality what was happening on the Cross was that Christ was giving his eternal life as a sacrifice for the sins of the world, taking our punishment there.
The writer concludes this little cameo of doctrine by saying, “Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore.” (v.13) i.e. let us identify with Christ, accepting (contrary to the derision of the world) that his death on the Cross bought our forgiveness. “ The preaching of the cross is, I know, nonsense to those who are involved in this dying world, but to us who are being saved from that death it is nothing less than the power of God.” (1 Cor 1:18 JBP version) It is that simple.
Back to Grace: So now we need to come back to our starting point: “It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by ceremonial foods.” (v.9b) We, like the Old Testament saints, need strengthening, need encouraging. The Old Testament believers resorted to sacrifices and offerings to get their consciences right before God and yet somehow it left doubts and the overall picture of the spiritual life of Israel throughout the Old Testament is mostly not good.
Today we have these concrete facts declared throughout the New Testament – that Christ died for the forgiveness of sins on the Cross, a specific historical event, the specific plan of God for our salvation. This comes to us freely so that we have to do nothing but accept the truth of this. THIS is what grace is all about so when the enemy comes against us with doubts and fears, we simply turn to the facts of the Gospel and rely on them.
No ‘Doing’ to Impress God: Now the problem is that many of us like to DO things to make us feel right with God, so we resort to such things as ‘trying to be good’ or ‘performing religious rituals’ (Sunday by Sunday) or ‘trying to make up for our bad aspects’ (doing charitable things) but the truth is that when we do that we put ourselves on a par with those Old Testament people worrying about ceremonial food. We look to ‘things’ to put us right with God, but Christianity is all about receiving freely from God.
If you are trying to be good to get on God’s good side, if you are going to church to get on God’s good side, or if you are doing charitable things to get on God’s good side, then STOP IT! Simply believe that He loves you and is for you and HAS made you right with Him through the Cross, and believe that He HAS given you His Holy Spirit who is the source of all power, all wisdom, all guidance, and all teaching. Learn to listen to Him and enjoy the wonder of being His child. Amen? Amen!