Digging in Deeper: Hebrews 9:16-23

“Where a will exists, the death of the one who made it must be established. For a will is valid only when people die, since it is never in effect while the one who made it is living. That is why even the first covenant was inaugurated with blood. For when every command had been proclaimed by Moses to all the people according to the law, he took the blood of calves and goats, along with water, scarlet wool, and hyssop, and sprinkled the scroll itself and all the people, saying, ‘This is the blood of the covenant that God has ordained for you.’ In the same way, he sprinkled the tabernacle and all the articles of worship with blood. According to the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. Therefore, it was necessary for the copies of the things in the heavens to be purified with these sacrifices, but the heavenly things themselves to be purified with better sacrifices than these.” (CSB – Read the chapter)

Have you ever done something wrong? Actually, let’s go ahead and change up that question to: When was the last time you did something wrong? I mean anything wrong. I’m not talking about just the big stuff. Big stuff, small stuff, medium stuff, all the stuff. When was the last time you did something for which you needed to be forgiven? As the author of Hebrews continues to unpack in more detail how the new covenant in Christ was made, he says something here about how forgiveness happens that should get our attention. Let’s take a look at it together.

This passage is long, but once again, it all goes together. Trying to break it up didn’t make sense. That being said, it breaks down into three sections. The first part is about wills. He is telling us something we should already know. A person’s will does not take effect until that person’s death has been certified. Now, today we have living wills which didn’t exist back then, but in the vast majority of cases, the whole point of a person’s last will and testaments is to try to exercise some sort of leverage as to what happens with their stuff after they’re gone. Since the person isn’t around to get a vote any longer, and because we show deference to the dead by seeking to continue carrying out their intentions even after they’re gone, we have wills to help answer questions and to prevent arguments among grieving and sometimes selfish family members who might otherwise wind up tying up the legal system fighting over the deceased person’s belongings, especially if there are a lot of them.

The author’s basic point, though, is clear: a will’s language and provisions don’t trigger until after the person has died. His deeper point is to get us thinking about the nature of a covenant. This is a little hard to follow, and to my knowledge this is the only place in the Scriptures that talks about God’s covenants with us using this kind of language. His argument here seems to be that a covenant expresses the will of the parties entering into it together. And, because covenants are usually binding promises intended to last beyond even the lifetimes of the people originally making the agreement, the will being expressed is not simply their will in terms of what they want to happen in the short-term, but the kind of long-term directive a legal will is intended to express. As a result, a death has to take place in order to cause the will to go into effect. But because the people making the covenant are still living, their death isn’t an option. As a result, when ancient covenants were made, there was always an accompanying animal sacrifice. The animal’s spilled blood – a sign that the death had taken place – is what served to seal and enact the covenant. That is, this death made the will expressed through the covenant valid.

This is why all covenants then involved the shedding of blood. Even more to the point, this is why God’s covenants with people throughout the Scriptures always involved the shedding of blood. When God comes to us to establish a covenant, He is expressing His will for the relationship between us and Him. In order for that will to be enacted a death has to take place. He can’t die, so that’s off the table from the start. But if we die, there won’t be anyone left for Him to share in the covenant. Thus, an animal (often several animals) must be sacrificed to make the covenant conditions live, so to speak.

As an example of this, the author takes us back to Moses’ original ratification of God’s covenant of law which governed the people from them until Jesus fulfilled and replaced it. As a part of the process of enacting that covenant, a whole bunch of animals were sacrificed, and the blood was sprinkled on everything. It was sprinkled on the scroll of the law itself, on the people, on the tabernacle, on the various implements of worship God had told Moses to have the people create. Everything got sprinkled with blood. Why? Because this was a sign that all of these things – everything sprinkled by blood – was now under the conditions of the covenant. God’s will and the people’s will in this matter was now enacted and operational.

The author, though, adds one more thing to this that brings a whole new element to the conversation. He says that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” At first, this seems to come out of left field. In order to understand this, let’s think about the nature of forgiveness for just a second. What is happening when someone is forgiven? When we forgive another person, we are releasing them from the debt they owe us because of the offense they’ve dealt us. At its most fundamental level, forgiveness is about the cancelling of a debt. Okay, but what does this have to do with the shedding of blood? I mean, if someone cuts me off in traffic and I forgive them on the spot (when I’m having a good day…on a not so good day, I’ll hold that grudge for the rest of the day and use it to justify being ugly to my wife and kids), there doesn’t need to be any blood shed for that to happen. Well…sort of.

When we understand forgiveness properly, we come to see that forgiveness is expressing a will. When an offense has been committed, in order for forgiveness to really take place, the debt the offender incurs has to be satisfied in a way that it cannot taken back up again later. If it can be taken up again, the forgiveness wasn’t thorough enough. When real forgiveness has occurred, the debt is completely erased and does not have any controlling impact on the person who was offended ever again. This doesn’t mean it is forgotten about (the whole notion of forgiving and forgetting is a fantasy, but it is nonetheless useful language to describe the kind of total burden release that real forgiveness allows), but it is no longer able to exert any kind of influence on the offended person’s heart or mind.

For real forgiveness to happen like this, the person is essentially saying, “I’m putting this debt down so thoroughly that it is not going to be picked back up again even once I’m dead and gone.” Well, think about what we’ve been talking about here. What is that? That’s an expression of a will. It is, in a sense, a mini covenant. And what does a will like this require to be enacted? A death. Blood. And indeed, we see this kind of thing in the Law of Moses. When one person offended another person, in order for their relationship to be restored, they had to go to the tabernacle, appear before the priest, and offer a sacrifice. Forgiveness required blood.

Okay, fine, but that still doesn’t explain how we can forgive one another today. Does this just mean real forgiveness between two people never actually happens? I mean, I don’t know of many people who offer up animal sacrifices to certify their covenants of forgiveness with those who have offended them. This is because we don’t live any longer under the old covenant. This is the author’s whole point. We live under a new covenant. It is a better covenant. It is built on better promises. As v. 23 tells us, it was ratified with better sacrifices. Actually, that’s not quite accurate enough. It was ratified with a better sacrifice, namely, the sacrifice of Jesus.

As we will unpack next week, Lord willing, and more when we get into chapter 10, Jesus eliminated the need for all other sacrifices when He sacrificed Himself for our sins. Jesus secured God’s forgiveness of all sin by the forging and certifying of a new covenant. His spilled blood was a better and stronger sacrifice than any animal ever was because it was human blood. Human blood could finally pay the cost of human sin and make available real forgiveness of sins. And, getting back to what we just asked about the possibility of real forgiveness between any two people thanks to a lack of sacrifices, when God pronounced all sins forgiven in the wake of Jesus’ sacrifice and spilled blood, that really meant all sin was now forgiven. Or at least all sin now has the possibility of being forgiven. That forgiveness still has to be sought out, but it is available. For all of it. If I sin against you, that sin is covered by Jesus’ sacrifice. If you sin against me, that sin is covered by Jesus’ sacrifice.

And if that seems strange, you have to understand that all sin is ultimately and primarily a rebellion against God’s character, command, and sovereignty. Whoever might be the human recipient of our sin, God was the first and chiefly offended party. Thus, if He has pronounced that the sin can be forgiven (which He did and it can in Christ), then we can safely operate under that declaration. In fact, we must. If we try to take up the position that we won’t forgive a particular sin against us, what we are doing is saying that our offense is greater than God’s; that we are greater than God. We can’t do such a thing and live under the authority of His covenant with us in Christ. There’s a reason Jesus so emphasized the point that if we don’t forgive, we can’t be forgiven during His ministry.

So, yes, all forgiveness requires the shedding of blood. Thankfully, though, Jesus’ blood was shed for that very purpose. In Him all sin is forgiven. Your sin. My sin. All the sin. For all time. We only need receive it and live in light of it. Thanks be to God we have this new covenant that makes possible what we couldn’t achieve by other means. The only thing for you to do now is to accept it. I hope you will.

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