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Sermon preached on Hebrews 13:20-25 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 4/14/2019 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
“Through the Blood of the Everlasting Covenant”
Last week’s passage in Hebrews was a call for us to pray. Now, this week’s passage, is a prayer for us. The author of Hebrews asked for his readers to be praying for him, and he then immediately prays for them. That’s what verses 20-21 are, they are a prayer. These verses are often treated as a benediction, but arguably the grammar would technically make this a prayer. The grammar uses an optative for the main verb, which makes this a form of a wish or request unto God, versus a benediction which would be more of bestowal of something from God to us. And so, for today we’ll begin to look at this prayer in verses 20-21, and we’ll finish up considering both the prayer and the whole book next time.
The part of the prayer that I want us to focus on today, can be summarized by the title of our sermon: “Through the Blood of the Everlasting Covenant”. We won’t look just at that line, but that line represents the overall theme of what I want to consider today. That theme is that this prayer points to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross as the reason for God to answer it. Look with me at the structure and you’ll see where I’m going with this. You see, when you look at the structure of this prayer, we might first notice the Godward direction of it. It starts and ends with God; structurally and conceptually, reference to God surrounds this prayer. That reminds us that we look to God’s power to answer this prayer and we glorify God in how he answers it. Well, if structure shows God bookending this prayer, the innermost part of the prayer is us, as the specific prayer request. The focus of what’s being requested in the prayer is us humans, and that’s in the middle part of this prayer. The prayer request is for God’s people, for our spiritual growth that we might faithfully serve God by his grace that transforms us. But then in the structure of the prayer, we ultimately notice what surrounds this prayer request for us. It’s Jesus Christ. The prayer for us is surrounded by Jesus. Verse 20 mentions Christ, then verse 21 mentions the prayer request for us, and then goes back to mentioning Christ. So, the connection between God and us in this prayer is Jesus. More specifically, this prayer says that what God has done for Jesus looks to what we ask God to do for us. In light of what God has done for Jesus, that’s why we pray for our spiritual growth. But why did God do what he did for Jesus here? Verse 20, because of the blood of everlasting covenant. Our translation says through the blood – grammatically this is surely the causal sense in Greek, meaning, because of the blood! And so, we pray to God for help in light of what he’s done for Jesus, and God’s done what he’s done for Jesus in light of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. And so, it’s that shed blood of Christ that is at the heart of why we can ask for what we ask for here.
We are not surprised, then, to see that the blood of Christ underlies this closing prayer in Hebrews. That’s been underlying the theology in Hebrews throughout. The blood of Jesus has been the foundation for this book’s teachings as it relates to what we have in Christ. The book began in chapter 1:3 declaring how he made purification for our sins. Hebrews 9 and 10 then develop how Jesus made such purification for our sins: it was through his blood shed on the cross. Hebrews there pointed repeatedly to the importance of blood in the old covenant sacrifices, but it concluded in 10:4 that it was impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to ultimately take away human sin. Yet, it wasn’t that blood wasn’t needed, it was just better blood that was needed. As Hebrews 9:22 said, without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins. And thus, 9:14 declared that it was the shed blood of Jesus that was responsible for the purification of our sins that was mentioned at the start of the book.
Hebrew’s emphasis on the blood of Christ also has been expressed by it mentioning other related benefits of Christ’s blood. Let me quickly survey those other benefits of his blood that Hebrews has told us about. In 9:12, Hebrews points to the blood as why we have eternal redemption. The idea of redemption refers to how we have been purchased by God out of slavery. So, the point is that Christ’s blood was used to purchase us eternally out of bondage to sin. We have freedom from the slavery to sin by Christ’s blood, and we belong to God now. So then when we pray, we bring our requests to him as those who belong to him, and not those who are under the master of sin. In 10:19, Hebrews says that we have confidence to enter Holy of Holies because of Jesus’ blood. That’s directly related to today’s topic, that we can draw near to God in prayer because of Jesus’ blood. We don’t fear destruction when we draw near to God in prayer for Christ’s blood has qualified us to have such access to God. In 12:24, Hebrews says that Jesus’ sprinkled blood speaks a better word to us than the blood of Abel. In other words, whereas Abel’s blood “spoke” to condemn sin, Jesus blood serves to speak the gospel message of atonement, comfort, and peace that we have as we trust in Christ and the cross. Whereas God pointed to Cain how his brother’s blood spoke condemnation and curse upon him, God points to Christ’s blood as how it speaks to the blessing we can now receive from God. Lastly, in 13:12, Hebrews says that Christ’s blood sanctifies us. This is consecration language and greatly encourages our prayer life. His blood makes us holy enough to bring our prayers before the holy God.
While we are considering what Hebrews has told us about the results and benefits of Christ’s blood, we should note the connection with covenant. Both here in verse 20, and before in the book, the connection between covenant and blood has been made. The benefits of Christ’s blood are covenantal benefits – they are defined, bound, and secured in covenant – with the blood ratifying that covenant. So, we see this in verse 20 — the blood invoked there is the blood of the covenant. Hebrews back in chapter 9 already spoke of the blood of the covenant that inaugurated the old covenant. But then Hebrews spoke of the better blood of Jesus that inaugurates a new, better covenant (10:29 and 12:24). And, verse 20 says this new, better covenant is also an everlasting covenant. Several prophets who foretold the coming messianic kingdom also spoke of its coming in an everlasting covenant. Isaiah 55:3 spoke of a coming everlasting covenant from the seed of David. Jeremiah 32:40 spoke of a coming everlasting covenant, which in the chapter before was described as the new covenant, which Hebrews quoted back in chapters 8 and 10. Ezekiel 37:26 prophesied a coming everlasting covenant of peace where God would set his sanctuary in the midst of his people forever. So, Jesus’s blood ratified a new covenant that will endure forever and ever. And so, when we come to God in prayer, we come covenantally. We are going to God as those who are members in this everlasting covenant. As Moses sprinkled the people in the old covenant with the blood of the covenant (9:19-20), so we have been sprinkled with this blood of the new covenant to show that we are members in that covenant (10:22), with all the rights and privileges of it. But again, we see how those covenantal benefits, including access to God in prayer, are rooted in Jesus’ shed bled. The covenant was inaugurated by his blood and we then come as those sprinkled with that blood.
So then, what I’d like to do now is spend a few minutes comparing and contrasting this phrase “through the blood of the everlasting covenant” with the prophecy of Zechariah 9, which ultimately speaks of the same thing. That’s the passage we read earlier in the service. This prayer in Hebrews thematically and grammatically has several things in common with Zechariah 9, especially 9:11 which speaks of God bringing his salvation because of the “blood of the covenant” – same exact wording in the Greek translation, and only other place this exact wording appears in the Bible. Likely, in typical Hebrews’ fashion, the author was alluding to Zechariah 9 in his prayer here. Well, whether or not Hebrews intended to allude to Zechariah here, there is enough connection with Zechariah 9 that warrants us making some observations in thinking about our passage for today. You might want to flip back to Zechariah 9 and keep a hand in both passages while I point these things out. I’ll be looking especially at Zechariah 9:9-11. The point is to see how this similar idea of the reliance on the blood of the covenant is not only present in Zechariah, but how Zechariah’s prophecy concerning this actually looks to what we now have fulfilled in Jesus’ shed blood. Zechariah’s prophecy looks to Christ and the new covenant. And so, the Zechariah passage can help inform our understanding then even of this prayer in Hebrews.
First thing to point out in Zechariah 9 is that it describes how the Messiah will come and speak peace to the nations (i.e. to the Gentiles). That’s Zechariah 9, verse 10. So then, we note that our prayer today also begins by addressing the God of peace. That reference implies what Hebrews has been telling us. There is a peace, a shalom, that we are to find in God through Jesus Christ. Remember, Hebrews 12:14 told us as a church to pursue this wholistic peace that comes from God. In Zechariah 9, it pictures that peace that comes from God through the Messiah as something that will bring together the nations under the flag of the Messiah. Or, at least that’s true for those who will “kiss the son”, in the words of Psalm 2:12. And so, as this prayer in Hebrews for today invokes the God of peace in conjunction with Jesus, we see this prayer calling upon the fulfillment of Zechariah 9:10. The Messiah was promised to bring the shalom of God, and that’s exactly what we come into in Jesus. Us Gentiles who were far off have been brought near to God and his people in the cross of Christ. Together we enjoy the peace of God, now and all the more, into eternity.
A timely and relevant part of the context there in Zechariah 9 is that this is the passage that speaks of the Triumphal Entry on Palm Sunday by Jesus. I love the providential timing of this that we could look at a passage in Hebrews with echoes back to Zechariah 9 on Palm Sunday. Zechariah 9:10, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King is coming to you; He is just and having salvation, lowly and riding on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Compared to the outwardly powerful Gentile kings who ride on horses, Zechariah pictures a king who comes in humility and meekness while able to bring about a universal and lasting peace, whose dominion is from sea to sea. What is only hinted at in Zechariah 9 is that his meek triumphal entry has in view the altar of the cross, where he would sacrifice himself for his people to bring about the prophesied peace and usher in the everlasting covenant. In that way, in the folly of the cross, it makes perfect sense for the Messiah to ride into Jerusalem on a donkey. It makes perfect sense because it shows that he won’t be securing victory over God’s enemies by a human sword but by the foolishness of the cross which is simultaneously the power of God for our salvation.
Of course, as we think about Zechariah and the triumphal entry, we have this picture of a king who leads his people. This prayer in Hebrews also makes us think of such leadership when it calls Jesus this great Shepherd of the sheep. Yet, because of the cross, first his people are scattered. That’s a prophecy as well in Zechariah. Just a few chapters later, Zechariah 13:7 speaks of the Messiah as the Lord’s Shepherd. But then it says, “Strike the Shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.” Jesus quoted that verse to warn his disciples how when he was arrested and put to death, his disciples’ initial response would be to forsake Jesus and scatter. Yet, as our passage from Hebrews reminds us, God rose Jesus from the dead and that served to ultimately draw his disciples back to him. Even us, we too have been drawn to this Jesus who then serves as our Shepherd King who secured our salvation at the cross.
That’s what we think of when we see that Zechariah 9:11 says that, “Because of the blood of your covenant, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.” This was the verse I mentioned before with the same Greek phrase as Hebrews 13:20 here. It especially brings out the cause and effect connection here with the blood. Zechariah 9, speaking of prisoners being set free, is saying that the cause of them being set free is because of the blood of the covenant. That’s the same phrase and idea we’ve been seeing in Hebrews today. But in our passage from Hebrews the point is that because of the blood the covenant, God has delivered Jesus from death. Think of how Hebrews has painted all this. Jesus suffered on the cross, outside the camp, at Calvary. He died there, physically on the cross. But, in that sacrifice, he spiritually offered his blood in the heavenly Holy of Holies. And then because of that, Hebrews tells us here that is why God raised him from the dead and established him as our Great Shepherd and High Priest and King. Well, the Zechariah usage of this phrase, “because of the blood of the covenant”, is a slightly different. There, the emphasis on what happens because of the blood of the covenant is not about the resurrection of the Messiah. Rather, it’s about the liberation and salvation of God’s people. It describes how because of the blood, those prisoners among God’s people are going to be set free. Zechariah describes them prophetically as being freed from a waterless pit, which might make you think of how Joseph was stuck in a pit before being sold off to Egyptian slavery. But surely that is prophetic imagery to think of how God is freeing people who are captives by the blood of the new covenant. In light of more revelation, we know that this ultimately came to pass in God’s people being set free from their captivity to sin, and that because of the blood of Jesus Christ. We are people who were captives to sin but we’ve been liberated because of the blood of the new covenant.
But I love the subtle difference in how Zechariah 9 uses this idea of “because of the blood of the covenant” versus how it’s used here in Hebrews. In Hebrews, the blood is the reason God raised Jesus from the dead. In Zechariah, the blood is the reason God’s people are saved. But this contrast only makes the point I’ve been trying to make today. I want us to see a connection between our benefits, as those who are saved, with what God’s done for Christ because of his sacrifice. As Philippians 2 rightly points out, in light of Christ’s humble obedience even to the point of death on a cross, God has highly exalted Jesus and given him the name that is above every name. So, in the victory of Christ’s shed blood, the God of peace has raised Jesus from the dead and seated him at his right hand as king over a universal kingdom. Hebrews says that our prayers then come to God in light of that. What God has done for Christ, in taking him from a state of humiliation to exaltation, becomes the basis for our own prayers. In light of our union with Christ, we pray for God to be working his saving benefits and grace within us. In light of who have been made in Jesus Christ, by his shed blood, and by this covenant he has brought us into, we pray for God to be forming the Spirit of Christ within us. We pray for the obedience of Christ and the victory over sin of Christ to be formed within us as those who are in Christ by the virtue of his shed blood that he has sprinkled in both heaven and on our hearts.
If any of this has sounded confusing today, let me offer one more way to explain the point. Essentially, we’ve been talking today about what it means to pray in Jesus’ name. In our prayers, we typically end them with the phrase, “In Jesus name, Amen.” Today’s prayer here in Hebrews, and this point about it being rooted in the blood of Jesus Christ, is really just to say that we need to pray in Jesus name. But that doesn’t mean that we are talking about just mindlessly slapping those words onto the end of our prayers. No, it means that the basis for God to answer our prayer is what Christ accomplished. What God has done in Christ because of what Christ has done in his active and passive obedience – that’s the basis for our prayer life. When we pray in Jesus’ name, in the right sense of that, it means we are drawing near to God in Jesus Christ, in his righteousness, in his merit, in his credit. Right? Isn’t that how the reference to Christ ends with in this prayer today? Right there in verse 21, after praying for our spiritual growth, it adds those short few words, “through Jesus Christ.” We pray all that we pray, for the sake of Christ and because of Christ. That’s why we expect God to hear and answer our prayer.
Of course, the opposite way of praying would be like what we see in Luke 18 with the parable of the “Pharisee and the Tax Collector” both praying. The Pharisee didn’t pray an “in Christ” prayer. His prayer tried to come before God in his own merit and credit. Don’t ever pray such a prayer. That’s not the prayer here, either. Hebrews doesn’t pray, “Now may the God of peace reward you greatly for all your sacrificial, perfect obedience by exalting you to eternal glory.” That wouldn’t be a Christian prayer. The Christian’s prayer is to come before God in the confidence that though a sinner, we have been forgiven by the blood of Jesus Christ. The Christian’s prayer is that we come humbly before the father but with the confidence of our Lord’s victory and ask for grace and mercy for this life. We ask for such help because of the very fact that we are sinful and weak creatures on our own. But in Christ, we know God has begun and is finishing a good, redemptive work in us. So, we pray, and we pray then, in Christ.
So then, may we not take this great privilege and duty of prayer for granted. But as we were commanded last week, may we be praying. But let us pray in Christ in the full sense of what that means. Amen.
Copyright © 2019 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.