Having completed ten chapters of careful teaching on the supremacy of Christ and the covenant cut in Christ’s blood, the writer now pivoted on the fulcrum of “therefore.”
“Therefore, my friends . . .”Hebrews 10:18 (NRSV)
Sanctified by the Blood of Jesus
The writer was using a phrase well-known to his audience, for the apostles had been teaching and preaching about from the beginning—although most often, these references to Jesus’ blood spoke of atonement and justification. Yet, as Peter wrote to the Jewish Diaspora,
“[You] have been chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit to be obedient to Jesus Christ and to be sprinkled with his blood: May grace and peace be yours in abundance.”1 Peter 1:2 (NRSV)
This sprinkling of blood refers to a different action than having had propitiation made, or being cleansed by. This sprinkling was symbolic of cutting a solemn and sacred covenant, just as the first covenant had been cut between God and humanity, through the people of Israel.
First Covenant: A Suzerain Treaty
Exodus 21-23 is an example of a conditional covenant, using the format of ancient near east contracts, or pacts, called suzerain treaties. These pacts had a proscribed format of seven parts which God used with the Israelites:
- Preamble: identified the Lord, YAHWEH, found in Exodus 20:2 “I AM the Lord your God”
- Historical prologue: identified what the Lord had done for the people “Who brought you out of Egypt and out of the land of slavery.” Exodus 20:2
- Stipulations: Basically, the laws incumbent upon the people—God’s moral law, represented in the Ten Commandments, found in Exodus chapter 20; God’s civil law, found in Exodus chapters 21-23; and God’s ceremonial law, best represented in the Book of Leviticus. These all comprise the stipulations God gave to God’s people, to fulfill the requirement, “You are to be my holy people,” (Exodus 22:31)
- Sanctions: These were usually dual in nature, which promised benefits upon obedience, or punishments upon failure to obey. In Exodus 23:20-33 God gave the Israelites promised blessing, protection, and victory for obedience, and unforgiveness for their rebellion. In Deuteronomy 28 there is a much longer list of blessings and cursings that went along with this covenant.
- An oath: The fifth part of the suzerain treaty included a public oath, made before God and in the presence of witnesses, in this case, Moses, Aaron and the elders, which established accountability in a way that a private, gentlemen’s agreement would be lacking. After hearing all of God’s words, which included the Ten Commandments, the building of altars, all of the civil law, and the promises of God, the people responded.
“All the people answered with one voice, and said, ‘All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.’”The people’s oath made before YHWH, Exodus 24:3 (NRSV)
First Covenant, Sealed in Blood
- Ratification rite: The people’s verbal oath was then symbolically sealed with a blood sacrifice. In verses 3-8, we see Moses building an altar, certainly according to the way God instructed in Exodus 20:22-26—only of earth, unhewn stone, and without steps.
- Formal copies: The final part of a suzerain treaty was in the making of two formal copies, one for the vassals and one for the sovereign lord. These copies were kept in a public place where they could be referred to in the event of a dispute and read at regular intervals to refresh their memory of the contents.
It is to this ratification ceremony the Hebrew writer was referring in his brief phrase.
“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 set up twelve pillars, corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel.”Exodus 24:4 (NRSV)
The twelve pillars were also no doubt of unhewn stone, meant to represent the twelve tribes of Israel and probably set around the altar.
“[Moses] sent young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed oxen as offerings of well-being to the Lord.
“Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he dashed 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.’”Exodus 24:5-7 (NRSV)
God’s covenant with the Israelites was then confirmed with fellowship offerings. Half the blood was sprinkled on the altar to signify the people’s dedicating themselves, their lives and beings to God and to God’s honor, just as the apostle Paul had written,
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”Apostle Paul, Romans 12: 1 (NRSV)
Sprinkling of Blood
“Moses took the blood and dashed it on the people, and said, ‘See the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.’”Exodus 24:8 (NRSV)
Each tribe undoubtedly knew which was their pillar so the elders could arrange themselves by their tribe’s stone.
The remainder of the blood was probably sprinkled on these twelve stone monuments, representing the people, signifying God’s gracious conferring of the Lord’s favor on them, sealing God’s promises made to them. The people would be able to visit these pillars any time, and be reminded both of their promises to God, and God’s covenant made with each of them, sealed in blood.
Covenant Commitment Between God and Humanity
Because God is our Creator, and we are God’s created ones, the Lord is not obligated to enter into a contract, or pact, with us. It is we who are morally obligated to render to God obedience because we owe God our very existence.
The Lord has authority over us, and we are dependent on God. So, it is by God’s grace, the giving of God’s undeserved favor, that the Lord initiates covenants.
Here the sprinkling of blood from one sacrifice on both the altar and the people showed that God and the people were mutually bound by the one covenant: God to support, defend and save, and the people to reverence, love, and obey.
Back in Exodus 19, God had invited the entire nation of Israel to come up to meet with God at the sound of the ram’s horn.
Ordinarily, a suzerain treaty was made between the sovereign and his vassal kings, not between the sovereign and the masses of the people. But God had told all of Israel that God intended for them to be a nation of priests. God intended on having a covenant relationship with each individual Israelite, treating each person as a vassal king, just as God intends to have a covenant relationship with you and me today.
However, the Israelites gave in to their terrible fear of God, so when the time came they begged Moses to go in their stead. Because the Lord never forces anyone to love God, or to obey God, but simply gives God’s invitation to come, YHWH agreed that Moses could be the people’s liaison.
In this way, Moses acted as a servant of God, in God’s house, an ambassador between God and the people. The writer of Hebrews had already prepared his readers to understand how profoundly deeper and more magnificent Jesus’ work as mediator was in comparison, saying
Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God . . .”Hebrews 10:19-21 (NRSV)
Not a servant having authority in the house of God, but rather the Son having authority over the house of God!
Jesus is worthy of more glory than Moses, just as the builder of a house has more honor than the house itself.
Now Moses was faithful in all God’s house as a servant, to testify to the things that would be spoken later. Christ, however, was faithful over God’s house as a son,
and we are his house if we hold firm the confidence and the pride that belong to hope.Hebrews 3:3-6 (NRSV)