The word of the day is “mediator.” In our reading from Hebrews 9:8-10; 15-23, the apostle explains how Jesus Christ established the new covenant that promises our eternal inheritance. Paul writes, “He is the Mediator of the new covenant by means of death…. That those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance” (vs. 15).
St. John Chrysostom explains, “A mediator is not lord of the thing of which he is mediator, but the thing belongs to one person, and the mediator is another: for instance, the mediator of a marriage is not the bridegroom, but one who aids him who is about to be married” (NpFp1: 13).
But what are the parties to the mediation of Christ? They are the God and Father and the human race. In Adam’s fall, humans forfeited their inheritance of dwelling with God forever in Paradise. But outside the Garden, God offered a covenant agreement to the Chosen People. By the terms of the Law of Moses, they could regain their standing with their Creator. Yet time and again, the people failed to keep the stipulations of that covenant and sinned against the Law of God.
The Sacrifices of the Old Covenant
To atone for their offenses against God, the Chosen People offered the sacrifices for sin, the blood of “goats and calves” (vs. 9:12). They knew that “Without the shedding of blood there is no remission [of sin]” (vs. 22). So they sprinkled the blood of sacrificial animals on the Book of the Law, on the tabernacle and its vessels, and, once a year, on the “Mercy Seat” in the “Holy of Holies” (9”19-22, 9:7-8).
This system of sacrifices was for purification to cleanse themselves from sin. But the apostle notes that the gifts and sacrifices offered to God were concerned only with material things- “food and drinks, washings, and “fleshy ordinances” (9:10). External offerings and sacrifices could not cleanse the inner conscience (vs. 9). If these practices could purify those who offered them, they would only have to be performed once. But they were so ineffective that they had to be offered, again and again, year after year (vs. 10:1-3).
A New Covenant in His Blood
To bring God and humankind together, something more drastic had to be done. God Himself became His own mediator. The Son of God became the intermediary. “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself not imputing their trespasses to them…” (2 Cor. 5:19). And so Christ established a new covenant in His blood. All the sacrifices of the old covenant prefigured His own perfect sacrifice. The self-offering of His own body made us holy (10:10), and His blood purifies our conscience so that we might serve Him in holiness (9:14).
The covenant is like a last will and testament that does not go into effect until the death of the one who makes it. Thus, the death of Christ validated the terms of the new covenant. Upon His death on the cross, we received reconciliation with God and the promise of the “eternal inheritance” (vs. 15).
Today’s reading and our study speak in terms that are somewhat unfamiliar to Orthodox Christians. We seek to avoid the juridical notion that the offering of Jesus paid the price for our sins by appeasing the Wrath of God. In this vein, Father Thomas Hopko (of blessed memory) wrote that “in Orthodox theology… the language of ‘payment’ and ‘ransom’ is rather understood as a metaphorical and symbolical way of saying that Christ has done all things necessary to save and redeem mankind enslaved to the devil, sin and death, and under the wrath of God” (Fr. Thomas Hopko. The Orthodox Faith, “The Symbol of the Faith: Redemption” OCA Website). According to Fr. Thomas, “Christ ‘paid the price’ to create the conditions in and through which man might receive the forgiveness of sins and eternal life by dying and rising again in Him to newness of life” (see Rom 5–8; Gal 2–4) (Hopko).
By his death on the cross, the Lord defeated death and cleansed human nature from sin (Hopko). In other words, by His death on the cross, Christ established the New Covenant in which we receive a new heart to know and love God and to serve Him in holiness and thanksgiving.