As both truly man and truly God, Christ alone was worthy to work our salvation, to purchase the forgiveness of our sins. This is why we confess the forgiveness of sins as a doctrine within the Apostles’ Creed. It is a truth to be believed, not a work to be accomplished. Christ has already accomplished the work; all that now stands is for us to believe in its truth.
Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant. For where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive. Therefore not even the first covenant was inaugurated without blood. For when every commandment of the law had been declared by Moses to all the people, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, saying, “This is the blood of the covenant that God commanded for you.” And in the same way he sprinkled with the blood both the tent and all the vessels used in worship. Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.
Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.
Hebrews 9:15-28 ESV
Yahweh’s relationship to Israel at Sinai was always one of great tension. On one hand, He called Israel his firstborn son and even slew every firstborn in Egypt whenever Pharaoh refused to let them go. On the other hand, they were a people just as sinful as the Egyptians and the other pagan nations. Thus, while God beckoned them to come to Him, He also had to warn them to stay away at the same time. We find a profound scene of this tension in action in Exodus 24:1-8, which describes the inauguration of the Mosaic Covenant. For context, Exodus 20-23 is the list of commandments that Yahweh gave to be Israel’s guide into keeping fellowship with Him, and those chapters conclude with God’s promise to give them their promised inheritance of Canaan as the children of Abraham. We then read:
Then he said to Moses, “Come up to the LORD, you and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and worship from afar. Moses alone shall come near to the LORD, but the others shall not come near, and the people shall not come up with him.”
Moses came and told the people all the words of the LORD and all the rules. And all the people answered with one voice and said, “All the words that the LORD has spoken we will do.” And Moses wrote down all the words of the LORD. He rose early in the morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel. And he sent young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen to the LORD. And Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he threw against the altar. Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the hearing of the people. And they said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.”
As this text shows and our passage in Hebrews as well, it is bloody affair for the holy God to covenant Himself with a sinful and unholy people.
A Death has Occurred // Verses 15-17
Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant. As is so often the case in Hebrews, this is a transitional verse. Therefore links it, of course, to our previous text, but it also serves as a kind of thesis statement for the following passage. Again, we find the author of Hebrews linking Jesus’ ministry as our great high priest to His mediation of the new covenant, for they both go hand-in-hand. Therefore, since Jesus entered the true and heavenly tabernacle as our high priest, He has also become the mediator of the new covenant. Through His priestly mediation, He has ensured that, by his redeeming death, all whom God has called to Himself will receive their promised eternal inheritance.
For where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive. If you have a bit of whiplash from wondering where these verses are coming from, you are not alone. Charles Hodge began his comments on these two verses by admitting, “These are difficult verses.” And he concludes by saying again, “The whole passage is very difficult.” The principal difficulty surrounds the word will, which in Greek is the same word that the author has been using for covenant. Thus, two broad interpretive choices lie before us as readers: should the word be translated as will or as covenant?
Sticking with covenant would seem to be more consistent with the author’s usage and emphasis upon God’s covenants with His people; however, a difficulty comes in attempting to understand why this covenant only took effect after the death of the one who made. Although ancient covenants were inaugurated with sacrifice and blood, that was often used as a visible picture of the curses that were invoked upon either party that might break the covenant. We see this in Genesis 15, where God Himself passed through the split sacrifices.
Viewing these verses as describing a last will and testament, Hodge says, makes “the two verses make good sense in themselves but have no connection with the previous as they should have as indicated by ‘gar’ [for].” With the utmost respect, I disagree with Hodge.
I believe the ESV’s translation is likely the best for a couple of reasons. First, the idea of a last will and testament does indeed link to verse 15 through the word inheritance, that is, clarifying inheritances is typically the main concern of a will. Second, I think we should read these verses as a kind of parenthetical statement, which the author is no stranger to. After all, 5:11-6:20 was essentially one gigantic parenthetical exhortation. Finally, the idea of inheritance and adopted sonship has already been established and will be brought up again. In Hebrews 1:14, we were called “those who are to inherit salvation,” and in 2:10-17 we were told that Christ made us into His brothers. This theme will come up again in 12:5-11, where the author reminds us that discipline is a marker of sonship. Thus, the topic of inheritances and wills is not coming out of thin air.
Just as a person’s death makes their will go into effect and whatever they have left as an inheritance is then distributed to their heirs, so too did Jesus’ death initiate the distribution of our inheritance, which as 1:14 said is our salvation. Our inheritance is being restored to communion with God and having that communion now be a familial bond: God is now our Father and we are now His sons and daughters. This is partly what our baptism symbolizes. In being baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, we essentially experience our adoption ceremony with the triune name of the Holy One becoming our family name.
Without the Shedding of Blood There is No Forgiveness // Verses 18-26
Therefore not even the first covenant was inaugurated without blood. For when every commandment of the law had been declared by Moses to all the people, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, saying, “This is the blood of the covenant that God commanded for you.”