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“Where Can You Cleanse a Conscience”

Hebrews 9:1-14
Bob DeGray
January 27, 2002

Key Sentence

The conscience cannot accuse those who have been cleansed by Christ.


I. The Place of Cleansing (Hebrews 9:1-5)
II. The Picture of Cleansing (Hebrews 9:6-10)
III. The Person of Cleansing (Hebrews 9:11-14)


        Chuck Colson tells about a television interview with Albert Speer, the Hitler confidante whose technological genius kept Nazi factories humming during World War II. The only Nuremburg war criminal to admit guilt, Speer spent twenty years in Spandau prison. Interviewer David Hartman referred to one of Speer's prison writings: "You have said the guilt can never be forgiven, and shouldn't be. Do you still feel that way?" Colson says he will never forget the look of pathos on Speer's face as he responded: "I served my sentence twenty years, and I could say `I'm a free man, my conscience has been cleared by my punishment.' But I can't do that. I still carry the burden of what happened to millions during Hitler’s lifetime. I can't get rid of it.” For thirty_five years Speer had accepted responsibility for his crime. His writings were filled with contrition, warnings to others to avoid his moral sin. He desperately sought expiation - all to no avail. Colson says he wanted to write Speer, to tell him about Jesus and His death on the cross, about God's forgiveness. But there wasn't time. The interview was Speer's last public statement before his death.

        Where do you go to cleanse a conscience? What can really remove the guilt and shame of sin? Many people have found, as Albert Speer did, that the burden of past sins is almost impossible to bear. A Greek author tells of a man who was seen by his neighbors pulling down bird's nests and destroying their young. He was reproved for his ill_nature and cruelty to the creatures. He cried out that their notes were to him insufferable, as they never ceased twitting him about the murder of his father.

        In a more contemporary setting University of Texas Professor Jay Budziszewski's book, The Revenge of Conscience tells the true story of a young woman who learned during her pregnancy that her husband had been unfaithful. She knew he wanted the child very much, so to punish him she had an abortion. But the shame of killing her baby was greater than the pain of his infidelity, because she knew she was to blame. How did she respond? She aborted the next child, too, and told her counselor, "I wanted to be able to hate myself more for what I did." She knew she had sinned. Her conscience gave her no rest. So she tried to punish herself for the abortion, and the worst punishment she could think of was to increase her guilt by committing the same sin again. But certainly not by sin can the conscience be cleansed of sin.

        How can a conscience be cleansed? The writer of Hebrews knows that only God can provide the solution for a conscience plagued by sin, but he also knows that the place God provided for finding forgiveness under the old covenant was only a picture of the true forgiveness and cleansing found through Christ. Awesome and holy as the ancient Hebrew Holy Place was, the consciences of those who worshiped there could still rise up and cry ‘not enough, not enough’.

        But those redeemed by Christ can be sure their consciences no longer have reason to pain them. The conscience cannot accuse those who have been cleansed by Christ. So how is your conscience this morning? Are you burdened by guilt you can’t get rid of? Weighed down by sin that feels unforgivable? Far away from intimacy with God because you’re ashamed of yourself? Our passage reminds us that the place to go to be relieved of these burdens is to Christ. He has provided the only way by which true forgiveness can purge the conscience of true guilt, thus giving unlimited access to God. The conscience cannot accuse those who have been cleansed by Christ.

I. The Place of Cleansing (Hebrews 9:1-5)

        We begin today in the Jewish tabernacle, given by God to illustrate how holy we must be to enter his presence. Hebrews 9:1-5 The first covenant had regulations for worship and also an earthly sanctuary. 2A tabernacle was set up. In its first room were the lampstand, the table and the consecrated bread; this was called the Holy Place. 3Behind the second curtain was a room called the Most Holy Place, 4which 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. 5Above the ark were the cherubim of the Glory, overshadowing the atonement cover. But we cannot discuss these things in detail now.

        The worship of God in Exodus was focused on the tabernacle, a portable sanctuary. It had been described to Moses on Mt. Sinai, built by skilled craftsmen in the desert, and accompanied the Jews in their forty years of wandering and into the promised land. It was in the tabernacle that the priests and people of Israel regularly encountered the holy presence of God, and where they worshiped him according to the righteous requirements of the law - the regulations for worship, sacrifice and offering.

        The tabernacle was set up inside a large courtyard walled off from casual entry by a fence of white curtains. It was a flat roofed tent, 45 feet long and 15 wide and high. It consisted of three layers of cloth: gorgeous tapestries on the inside, woven of blue, purple and scarlet yarns, covered by two protective layers, including the famous sea-cow hides. Inside it was divided into two rooms by a thick, ornate curtain. The outer room was called ‘the holy’ and the inner room was the ‘the holy of holies’.

        The author mentions two items in the holy place: a branched lampstand of pure gold and a gilt table that held one loaf of bread for each of the twelve tribes of Israel. The lamps show God as light, an Old Testament idea carried into the New Testament when Jesus says “I am the light of the world.” The bread was a thank offering for God’s provision, a truth is also seen in Jesus, who said “I am the bread of life.”

        Next the author describes the items associated with the Holy of Holies, the inner room. In front of the curtain that separated it from the Holy Place – actually on the outside of the Most Holy Place, but associated with it – was the table of where incense was burned to represent the prayers of God’s people rising into his presence.

        On the inside of the Holy Place was the ark of the covenant, a chest or trunk completely covered with gold inside and out and holding some things commemorative of the journey through the wilderness: a pot of manna, Aaron’s staff that budded and most especially the stone tablets on which the ten commandments were written. But the focal point of the Holy of Holies was the cover of the ark of the covenant. In our translations it is called either the mercy seat or the atonement cover, and it’s name is intimately associated with atonement or the payment of sins. It was onto this cover that the blood of the sacrifice was placed to make atonement for sins.

        This same word is used of Christ in the New Testament. In Romans 3:25 Paul says that we have redemption because God offered Jesus as a sacrifice of atonement, or, as the NIV footnote says, as the one who would turn aside God’s wrath, taking away sin. That’s what the blood represented on the atonement cover, and that’s what Jesus did on the cross. 1 John 4:10 “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” The mercy seat represented the place where sins are paid for and consciences cleansed.

        Furthermore, this seat or throne was overshadowed by gold statues of cherubim, which represented the presence of God. It was on the mercy seat, between the cherubim that God would show his presence to the people of Israel. This is what made it ‘the Most Holy Place’ because where God is is holiness. His presence is glorious, and his holiness keeps out of his presence anything not cleansed from sin.

II. The Picture of Cleansing (Hebrews 9:6-10)

        So how are things cleansed? The mere existence of this holy place doesn’t purify anything. Something has to happen before sins are paid for and consciences cleansed. In verses 6 to 10 the author tells us what the means of cleansing: When everything had been arranged like this, the priests entered regularly into the outer room to carry on their ministry. 7But 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. 8The 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. 9This 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. 10They are only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings – external regulations applying until the time of the new order.
        Sacrifice was continual in the ancient tabernacle. Worshipers brought their sacrifices to the great bronze altar in the outer courtyard every day, one after another, and one of the priests would receive the offering and place it on the flames. This had to be done over and over, in contrast to the finality of the sacrifice of Christ. The reason was simply that none of the sacrifices offered was sufficient for the ongoing sin that characterizes mankind. Like the dust on your dresser or the dishes in your sink, sin just continued to appear even after you had done your best to be cleansed.

        Every day, for example, a priest would have to go inside the holy place. The rituals he performed there were fully described in the old law. He would be chosen, possibly only once in a lifetime, for a week of service. He would tend to the lampstand, and replenish the supply of oil. Then he would replace the twelve loaves of bread on the table, replenish the coals under the altar of incense and place new incense on it as a fragrant offering to God - penetrating into the Holy of Holies. This was what Zechariah was doing when Gabriel came to announce the birth of John the Baptist.

        But on pain of death, those priests would not actually enter the Holy of Holies. That was a privilege reserved for the high priest, once a year, on the Day of Atonement. Leviticus 16 gives all the details of this awesome event and emphasizes one thing - that only the pure and undefiled could enter the Holy of Holies. It was true ceremonially for the high priests entering the earthly tabernacle, but how much more true for the one who entered the heavenly tabernacle - Jesus.

        What was the key to this purity? For the sinful high priest, as well as for the people he represented, it was clearly blood. He could not enter the Most Holy Place without the blood of a sacrifice. He had to sacrifice first for himself, taking the blood of a bull into the Most Holy Place and sprinkling it onto the ark of the covenant - onto the atonement cover to make atonement for his own sins. That done he went back out into the courtyard, sacrificed a goat, and brought its blood into the Most Holy Place, to be sprinkled on the ark to make atonement for the sins of the people.

        Notice that the author of Hebrews says specifically that the sins thus atoned for were the sins done in ignorance. Most of the sacrificial system was addressed to unintentional sins. It did include things like lying, deceit and cheating, but the focus was not on pre-meditated sin. The word murder, for example, doesn’t even appear in the book of Leviticus, and the obvious reason is that murder carried the death penalty. That person would pay the price of his own sin. There was no ceremonial cleansing, because that was for the living. But the murderer, the adulterer and the rebel needed something, didn’t he? Something more than this ceremonial system could offer.

        The author of Hebrews recognizes this, and under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit he tells us what the Holy Spirit meant when he chartered this system: “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 doesn’t mean nobody could enter the earthly model - the high priest did that. But in the old covenant the average person had no access to the presence of God. As long as the only way in was through these ceremonies and this repeated blood offering and this once a year momentary access to a humanly built enclosure, there was no systematic way to God for the sinner. So what was the value of the old system? When combined with faith on the part of those who brought the sacrifices it pictured God’s righteousness, assured forgiveness and promised redemption.

        But salvation was accomplished by faith. God doesn’t say this in the law, just as an artist doesn’t caption a masterpiece. But we know Abraham was saved by faith, and all the godly of the Old Testament trusted or had faith in God. As David says in Psalm 22 “In you our fathers put their trust; they trusted and you delivered them. They cried to you and were saved; in you they trusted and were not disappointed.”

        So the old system was in one sense a faith lesson - a picture intended to reinforce faith. Verse 9: “This is an illustration for the present time.” Our author uses the word ‘parabole’, from which we get parable. The old covenant was a parable about being redeemed through sacrifice and it was intended not just for those first worshipers, but for anyone who wants to take sin seriously and find God’s forgiveness. But it was not, by itself, able to save. Verse 9: “the gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper.” Those external sacrifices, unless combined with faith, would and could do nothing for the heart of the observer. Only the one who feared and trusted God could benefit by them.

        Everything in that tabernacle was part of the parable of redemption - a picture that had to suffice, verse 10, “until the time of the new order.” The new order is the new covenant - the heart covenant which promises an inner working of the Holy Spirit bringing true change in a person’s life and assurance of cleansing from guilt and sin. The time of the new order is now - after Christ’s sacrifice. It was now for the readers of Hebrews and it is now for us - time to get real healing for burdened consciences, not through an external picture, but through an internal reality.

III. The Person of Cleansing (Hebrews 9:11-14)

        Where is this reality found? In Christ, of course. Hebrews 9:11-14 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. 12He 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. 13The 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. 14How 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!

        The external ceremonies, the parable of Christ, were only useful until the reality appeared. When Christ came as high priest the good things promised by the Old Testament came with him. The author of Hebrews wants his readers to know that the better reality is here, now, available. To cling to the old covenant pictures is like clinging to a picture of your loved one when the loved one herself - or himself - has come. You wouldn’t say “I don’t have time to look at you, I’m looking at your picture” especially if the picture quality wasn’t that high. So when Christ appeared, the picture should have been set aside in light of the glorious reality of redemption.

        After all, Jesus went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that was not man-made. Remember, the tabernacle was only an earthly copy of a heavenly or spiritual reality. The true tabernacle is part of the unseen spiritual world all around us so that Jesus, while physically dying on the cross outside Jerusalem, was spiritually offering himself on a heavenly altar, sprinkling his blood on an atonement cover in a heavenly tabernacle. The author says that this reality was greater and more perfect than the earthly one. These are two of his favorite words. We’ve seen over and over that Christ is greater than anyone and anything. Now we’re beginning to see that Christ and his work are both perfect, that he serves in a perfect spiritual sanctuary.

        But like the human high priest, Christ entered that sanctuary with the blood of a sacrifice. The high priest had to sacrifice a bull and a goat to go into the Most Holy Place of the earthly tabernacle. But Jesus entered with a better blood sacrifice - his own blood offered once and for all. The earthly high priest had to enter twice because the first time he sprinkled the blood in atonement or payment for his own sins and only the second time did he enter with the blood of a sacrifice for others. But Christ entered once and for all. He had no need to make an atonement for his own sins, for he had none. But he entered with the blood of his own sacrifice and made atonement for the sins of others once and for all.

        And what was the result? He obtained for us eternal redemption, the greatest fruit of the offering or sacrifice he made. The word translated redemption is from the same root as ‘ransom’ and is used by Jesus when he says “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." This redeeming sacrifice is a key part of Paul’s epistles. Romans 3:24 we “are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” And this redemption is eternal. It is complete and therefore both unrepeatable and irreversible.

        Furthermore, the sacrifice of Christ is effective at the heart level and can cleanse the conscience, where the sacrifices of the old covenant were limited to ceremonial cleansing. The blood or ashes of animal sacrifices serve as an outward picture of cleansing, so that one becomes outwardly clean. For example, if an Israelite was made unclean by touching a dead body, Numbers 19 gave the remedy: all he had to do was go to a priest. Taking the ashes of a red heifer that had been ritually sacrificed and burned with a mixture of cedar, hyssop and scarlet wool, the priest would mix them with water and sprinkle them on the defiled. Then he would be ritually clean. But the sacrifice of Christ could and did purify the heart. It was an inner, spiritual cleansing. The law offered provision for the sprinkling of bodies, but Christ made provision for the sprinkling or purification of the conscience.
        Look carefully at what is said about the offering of Jesus. What is offered is ‘the blood of Christ,’ in contrast to the blood of goats and bulls. The blood in both cases, stands for the death of the victim, the yielding up of a life on behalf of others.

        But Christ did it at his own initiative – he offered himself. No other victim and certainly no other high priest had done this. It was premeditated, not accidental. Moreover only Christ could offer himself without blemish. All the animals offered by the Levitical priests were without blemish, but their innocence was not of a moral kind. Jesus was morally pure at death. He had perfectly fulfilled God’s will, lived and died without sin so that he could be a spotless sacrifice on behalf of his people.

        Finally, Christ offers himself through the eternal spirit. It is debatable whether, in the Greek, the reference is to the Holy Spirit or Christ’s own spirit, but the debate is really pointless, for Paul often calls the Holy Spirit the Spirit of Christ and certainly the Holy Spirit was at work in every choice that Christ made. And only this Spirit is eternal, a fact which even a sacrificial death could not effect. Since the redemption secured was eternal, the sacrifice must be through one who is eternal.

        With an offering so clearly superior, the result must be correspondingly great. And it is, because it is effective at the heart level. The old covenant sacrifices, we were told specifically back in verse 9 could not cleanse the conscience. In fact, any sacrifice that doesn’t cleanse from sin and it’s guilt is useless. Further, such sacrifices cannot be expected to change lives. They are dead works that leave the worshiper no better than he was before - unless they are combined with faith. If they are purely external, the conscience knows it, and rightly troubles the worshiper with guilt.

        But now, through Christ, we can receive eternal redemption grounded in the reality of what Christ has done - the reality of his once offering of himself. Therefore we can have full assurance of faith - we can know for sure we are saved and our sins have been atoned for and our guilt cleansed. In Christ our consciences can be sure that our sins are gone, because the underlying unrighteousness has been dealt with.

        Our consciences, which told us the truth when they said we were sinners and corrupt of heart can now tell us just as equally the truth that though we were sinners and still sin we are now cleansed, forgiven and changed. Satan tries to get our consciences to accuse us falsely of being so sinful that we don’t deserve the cleansing we have received, but sanctified common sense tells Satan to forget that gambit because we have been cleansed not in some earthly picture but in eternal spiritual reality. If you’ve come here today with a conscience burdened by sin, Jesus is the answer. There is no sin not paid for by his sacrifice, not even yours. If you believe that and put your trust in him, he can entirely clean you up, from the inside out.

        Some of you have probably read Edgar Allen Poe’s famous poem “The Raven” which tells the story of a man grieving and remorseful over the death of the one he loved. The raven that came in the darkness into his chamber, perched above his door and spoke that chilling word "Nevermore," seems to be a metaphor, a symbol of remorse.

        Poe beseeches the raven to take his beak from out his heart and his form from off his door, but all the raven answers is "Nevermore." “And the lamplight o'er him streaming, throws his shadow on the floor; And my soul, from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor, Shall be lifted nevermore!” The shadow that conscience wraps around the soul because of evil done, because of sin, is a shadow which man is not able to lift. Only Christ can lift that shadow.

        I read recently the testimony of a man who said that while others tried to soothe his angry conscience, and kept urging that, really, things were not nearly so bad as he was making out, Christ looked him in the eyes and told him bluntly he was a desperate sinner, worse, much worse, even than he realized. At that, strangely enough, the man was heartened. Here at last, he felt, is one who understands and knows the facts. And since His desperate diagnosis is so accurate, may not His optimism also justify itself even in me? Well does He know what is in human nature, and yet, knowing the worst, He still has confident hope. There must be a basis for it.”

        There is a reason for our confidence, there is a reason for a cleansed conscience, there is a reason for hope. It is the blood of Christ who in the heavenly sanctuary, the true holy of holies offered himself unblemished, a pure and spotless sacrifice so that having been cleansed from sin you and I might obtain eternal redemption. Your conscience cannot accuse you anymore if you have been cleansed by Christ.