A Clean Conscience

Hebrews 9 

Intro: An elderly couple and their grandson from the backwoods of West Virginia were making their first trip to the city. They stayed in a hotel with a beautiful lobby. As the man was checking in at the desk, grandma and grandson stood in front of this amazing box in the center of the lobby. It had doors that kept opening and closing and they watched with amazement at what was happening before their very eyes. Two men entered the machine dressed in suits and the doors closed; a moment later, the doors opened and three men came out in shorts. One man got in with three suitcases and then was completely gone when the doors opened again. The excitement of the machine got the best of her when an elderly, stooped, wrinkled man stepped into the elevator and moments later the doors opened and a handsome, athletic young man stepped out. She couldn’t contain herself and said to her grandson, “Boy, go get yer pa!”

There is something exciting and irresistible about the new, when something old can be restored to its former glory, when we see that which is imperfect made perfect.

Our writer, with a wonderful sense for the dramatic and a keen eye for detail, invites us to join him in the midst of the Tabernacle, where men came to seek God’s presence.

Now the first covenant had regulations for worship and also an earthly sanctuary. A tabernacle was set up. In its first room were the lampstand, the table and the consecrated bread; this was called the Holy Place. Behind the second curtain was a room called the Most Holy Place, which had the golden altar of incense and the gold-covered ark of the covenant. This ark contained the gold jar of manna, Aaron’s staff that had budded, and the stone tablets of the covenant. Above the ark were the cherubim of the Glory, overshadowing the atonement cover. (Heb 9:1-5)

He describes all of the furnishings of the Tabernacle (and later, the Temple): lampstand, table, consecrated bread, golden altar of incense, gold-covered ark of the covenant. And then inside the ark of the covenant, we see the gold jar of manna, Aaron’s budding staff, and the stone tablets of the covenant. Then above the ark are seated the cherubim of the Glory – each piece with a symbolic importance.

And we learn that it’s not just furnished for everyday service, it’s for that most sacred holy day, the Day of Atonement (the altar of incense has been placed inside the Most Holy Place instead of its usual position in the outer room).

In all of its grandeur, in all of its external holiness, it is like a set on a Hollywood movie. It is all facades, no substance. Remember what he told us in chapter 8: it’s a copy and shadow of the reality.

When everything had been arranged like this, the priests entered regularly into the outer room to carry on their ministry. But only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance. (Heb 9:6-7)

We see the priests doing their duties, making their sacrifices, carrying on their ministry. The high priest once a year into the inner room, the Most Holy Place – always with a sacrifice of blood, for his own sin as well as the people.

It is in vss. 8-10 that he explains all this: The Holy Spirit was showing by this that the way into the Most Holy Place had not yet been disclosed as long as the first tabernacle was still standing. This is an illustration for the present time, indicating that the gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper. They are only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings—external regulations applying until the time of the new order. (Heb 9:8-10)

They are like TV doctors, going through the motions, making for a lot of drama, but nobody is every really cured. The priests are so strapped by their own limitations, their own sinfulness, that the sacrifices they offer can never accomplish what we need most.

As long as the first Tabernacle is still standing, the way into this Most Holy Place still remains hidden, undisclosed. As glorious as this Tabernacle is, there is still that curtain blocking the entrance into the Most Holy Place – still separating us from God.

How many thousands of animals had died to consecrate this sinful and rebellious people? As much blood as had been shed, as many animals as had died – they still could not cleanse the conscience of the worshiper.

We haven’t walked into the middle of the story – the writer has spent eight chapters preparing us for this moment. He has painted the inadequacies of the old, the hopelessness of our situation – he sets the stage for what we know is coming. And then in vss. 11 he reveals the reality – the substance of which all this was a shadow against the wall.

When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption. The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant. (Heb 9:11-15)

Notice the power of the new:

  • He didn’t come through the old Tabernacle, but the greater and more perfect tabernacle.
  • He didn’t offer the blood of goats and calves, but his own blood.
  • He didn’t have to make this sacrifice year after year, but once for all, for everyone.
  • His sacrifice wasn’t just ceremonial – not just an external washing – but his blood cleansed deep down, through and through. It cleanses our conscience and frees us from sin.
  • And the writer tells us that everyone who comes to him has been freed from their sin and receives the promised eternal inheritance.

The writer anticipates the question that everyone of has asked at one time or another: “Why?” Why did Christ have to die? Couldn’t God have figured out some other way? Written it all off like a bad debt? Some other way so that Christ didn’t have to go to the cross?

And the writer explains:

There are certain rules that govern the making of wills (the same word as covenant): a death must take place, blood must be shed – vs. 22 – “the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.”

And even God – sovereign, almighty God – obligates himself to these same rules. He does not claim an exemption; he does not rewrite the rules. His holiness and righteousness demand that he fulfill these legal requirements.

And so, the cross – the sacrifice – the death – the blood is shed – the covenant is fulfilled.

But something else happened. There on the cross, when Jesus cried out “It is finished,” the sky grew dark, the earth shook, and the curtain in the Temple – the curtain that separated God from man – was torn from top to bottom. And at that moment the old covenant was fulfilled, the Levitical priesthood became obsolete, and we were admitted into the presence of God. Christ opened the way into the Most Holy of Holies for you and me to enter in.

Let me tell you what really jumps out of this chapter at me. In the middle of all this technical talk about Tabernacle furniture, and priestly functions, and legal requirements for wills and probate – there is a phrase I long to hear – “a clean conscience.”

All the religion in the world isn’t going to give me that.

I may come to church three times a week, and feel very religious. I might be an elder or a ministry leader or a Bible class teacher or a preacher and know I’m involved in church. I may have done all the right things at all the right times and know all the right stuff, but deep inside my life is a mess – sin that hasn’t been dealt with, anger that festers away, lust that smolders under the surface, greed that keeps me ungrateful.

The outside might look fine, but my heart is calloused over. Nobody else knows but me and God – and we both know, my conscience is sick with guilt and shame. More religion can’t fix that – only Jesus can.

And that’s what the Hebrews writer promises – How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! (Heb 9:14)

With the promise, though, there is a warning:

Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him. (Heb 9:27-28)

You know that Christ died once for all to take away our sin. In that same way, we will die once, and after that face judgment. And there is more: Jesus died once, but he will come back a second time, not to come and bear sin again, but to bring salvation to everyone who is waiting for him.

It will be a bittersweet return. For everyone who has received the forgiveness of their sins through Jesus’ blood it will be a day of celebration and victory. But for those who have put off and rejected or ignored his offer of salvation, what a day of terror that will be.

The apostle Peter describes when that happens – that clean conscience, that true freedom. He draws an analogy with God’s saving Noah and his family in the ark, and then he says, “…and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also – not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God.” (1 Peter 3:21)

If you’ve never experienced that kind of freedom – freedom from sin and guilt and shame – the promise of a clean conscience – Peter says, that’s where it takes place – in baptism. Other NT writers call baptism a washing, a cleansing, a burial, a rebirth, a renewal. It is in baptism that God imparts his miraculous work of grace, and applies the soul cleansing blood of Jesus. It is the seal of that new covenant that God makes with you.

You can walk out of here this morning a new creation, your conscience washed clean by the blood of Jesus.