I was driving home from a wedding in Tennessee yesterday morning, and so I listened to a sermon on the radio in hopes of having some kind of substitute (however insufficient) for missing church. I found a couple that I had no interest in listening to beyond the first few sentences, and then I found a man who didn’t seem too bad.
On the whole, he preached a pretty good sermon, but one portion particularly bugged me. He was preaching from Hebrews 10:11-14:
11And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. 14For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.
In describing the Levitical priests, he said something like, “So they were just there, going through the motions days after day, doing their ‘religious thing,’ offering one sacrifice after another. But their hearts weren’t in it.”
The thrust of what he was saying was that the Israelites had “religion,” but not a “true relationship” with God. I don’t think that this is a good way to handle this passage for three reasons.
- Some Levitical priests just “went through the motions,” but others certainly didn’t. Do you really think that, when the tabernacle (Ex. 40:34-38) and the temple (1 Kings 8:10-11) were consecrated, and the glory of YHWH descended, that the priests there were just going through the motions? I find that difficult to believe.
- This kind of preaching almost makes it sound as though, if the Levitical priests only would have performed their duties with whole hearts, then everything would have been okay. The whole point of this passage, though, is that no amount of Levitical sacrifices could ever have accomplished anything definitive: “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb. 10:4).
- The total effect of (1) and (2) is to detract from the glory of Christ. God gave the Levites a glorious covenant, but even its glory was only to point forward to the greater glory of Christ. This is Paul’s argument in 2 Corinthians 3: “For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory” (2 Cor. 3:9).
Instead of trying to explain the failure of the Levites, it is probably safer and more edifying for us to preach the matchless success of Christ in making atonement for our sin, once for all.