Disinfecting the Conscience: The Fifth Sunday of Lent

Hebrews 9:11-14, Leviticus 16, Jeremiah 31:33

In the midst of Great Lent, we are also in the midst of a people (understandably) obsessed with quarantine and disinfecting whatever we can.  Our reading from Hebrews for the fifth Sunday of Lent takes us back to the time of the Torah, when both cleansing and distancing were a significant part of the ritual for atonement.  This annual time of ritual purification for the Hebrew people is both compared and contrasted with Christ’s great act, performed once for all, for the whole world.  Here is the epistle reading for this coming Sunday:

But Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?  (Hebrews 9:11-14)

Here Jesus is pictured as the perfect High Priest, of which the OT high priest was merely a shadow.  His actions, which we have already reviewed in our last episode, are described in Leviticus 16—how the blood of the goats and bull are sprinkled on the people and in the Holy of Holies, and how the scapegoat is driven out from the camp, bearing the sins of the people.  But it is also helpful to know that, according to the ancient Jewish commentary called the Mishnah, the high priest actually was to prepare for the Holy Day of Atonement by isolating himself in the Temple for some time, and during that period, cleansing himself twice with the ashes of the heifer that had been burned. Our text refers to these ashes, in fact.  Indeed, the ashes of a heifer were used not simply by the high priest prior to the Day of Atonement, but generally whenever anyone had fallen into sin, and needed to be purified. Number chapter 19 tells us about how these ashes were solemnly prepared, with the priest and the one gathering the ashes consigned to a period of isolation, and the following chapters of that book explain that anyone who refused to be purified by the ashes would have to be driven out of the camp.

So, cleansing from sin and isolation for a certain period were part of God’s remedy for sin under the old covenant.  But, of course, these measures were a stop-gap, provided to instruct the people on the seriousness of sin, but never intended to last for all time.  As a fulfillment of these rituals, the true High Priest came, offering his own blood, and bearing our sins in His own person.  He came “with the greater and perfect tabernacle”—that is, with His very own body, which was perfectly joined to the Holy Spirit and perfectly in harmony with the Father, whom His most pure lips called “Abba!”

Some have thought that the “tabernacle” spoken of here in Hebrews represents the heavenly dwelling place, rather than Jesus’ own body, but this would not fit in with either the rest of Hebrews, or with the interpretation of the fathers.  Elsewhere in Hebrews, the heavenly dwelling place is called, for example, Mount Zion, the City of the Living God.  No, it is in His own body that God the Son came as our High Priest, sharing our human nature, but also “not of this creation,” for He was begotten of the Father eternally.  And in that body, glorified after His ordeal, He entered into the Most Holy Place, that is, into the very presence of the Father, remembering and honoring us by bearing upon Himself our identity, just as the earthly high priest had worn his breastplate with the names of the sons of Israel on his chest.  The high priest had to carry with him the blood of a substitute animal as his badge of entry; but Jesus had the right in Himself to come into that Holy Place, for it was His home.  And He brought His own blood as our surety.

St. John the Golden Mouthed explains, “How did he become mediator? He brought words from God and brought them to us, conveying what came from the Father and adding his own death. We had offended; we ought to have died. He died for us and made us worthy of the covenant. By this is the covenant secure, in that henceforward it is not made for the unworthy.” (ON THE EPISTLE TO THE HEBREWS 16.2.) Jesus, then, mediated both by teaching who the Father was, and by dying in our place—and so the new covenant was established both by word and by deed.  This covenant under which we live was described, long before it was enacted, by Jeremiah, who declared, “But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, says the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (Jer 31:33).

A Covenant written in the heart, within!   This description matches what the letter to the Hebrews tells us about the cleansing provided by Jesus’ death: “the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse[s] your conscience from dead works to serve the living God.”  What does it mean to have the “conscience” clean?

We might pause here to note that the Greek word can also mean consciousness and not simply our conscience, that part of our consciousness which registers whether we are guilty.  The whole of our minds are to be cleansed by Christ’s death, so that we are not driven to engage in those deeds that come from our deadly condition, and lead to death: “dead works.”  But also, our conscience is cleansed, because Christ has atoned for those deadly things that we have done, and we are baptized into Him, not mired in the filth of our past: we do not have to be guilt-ridden any more.

Now, of course, some people’s consciences don’t work well. Perhaps they have desensitized them by doing dark things over and over, or by listening to the standards of this world, that tells them such-and-such is not sinful, because it doesn’t really hurt anybody. St. Paul was well aware of the fact that just because our consciences are not bothered, it does not mean that WE are clean.  So, in speaking to the Corinthians about those who had accused him, he remarked, “But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me.”  So, the lack of a “guilty conscience” is not proof that we are righteous.  But we are not talking here about simply a lack of guilt-feelings, but of how Christ cleanses within so that the quiet heart reflects what is true, when we are in tune with God, and have put away the deeds and thoughts that lead to death.

The Old Covenant could point out those things that were “deadly works”, and call the Hebrews to repentance—but it could not change the heart, or truly cleanse. But a thorough cleansing from within, which truly relieves even the conscience, prepares us to truly worship, to truly serve the living God.  Death itself has died in the presence of the living One.  As St. John Chrysostom puts it, {For, he says, if “the blood of bulls” is able to purify the flesh, much more shall the blood of Christ wipe away the defilement of the soul. (Hebrews 15.5)

This action of Jesus on our behalf is so deep and so mysterious that the letter here brings together several pictures to explain it to us!

First, there is the dominant picture of this passage, that of cleansing, which we have seen, has its shadows in the ceremonies of the OT.  But, Hebrews has said to us, we have a real cleansing through our baptism, and through the actions and Word of Christ that makes us clean, as Jesus  also tells the disciples in John 15.  Then, there is the word “redemption,” which suggests liberation at the price of his death.  We were slaves, and had to be freed at an enormous cost: “with His own blood He … obtained eternal redemption.”  Like the Hebrew people, we have been taken out of slavery, and brought into freedom, made children of God. And finally, there is the image of sacrifice, which shows us the importance of the Old Testament rituals that pointed forward to God’s provision for us, the Lamb slain from the very foundation of the world. We are cleansed, we are bought with a priceless gift, we are atoned for. Cleansing, Redemption, and Sacrifice come together in this passage to show the enormity of God’s love for us in Christ. Yes, our consciences have been disinfected, deep within.  But so have our whole spirits, and souls, and bodies, so that we may continue this Lent to put away the deeds of darkness, and live in a sober joy towards Him.

Bodily cleansing and physical solitude is of some value, especially at this season; but the deep-cleaning that comes only from God is enormously more valuable, and leads us to joy, as we look to both the good things that have come, and the good things still to come.




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