AS already suggested, two qualifications are necessary if we are to read the Epistle to the Hebrews intelligently. We need an adequate acquaintance with the typology of Scripture, and we must understand the position and thoughts of the Hebrew Christians who had been led to Christ under the tutelage of the divine religion of Judaism. That Christ came to found a new religion is a figment of Gentile theology. In the classical sense of the word "religion," Judaism is the only divine religion the world has ever known; and Christ came not to destroy, but to fulfill it. As contrasted with Judaism (and in contrast also with the apostasy of Christendom), Christianity, I repeat, is not a religion,1 but a revelation and a faith. But the Hebrew Christians were in danger of regarding the coming of Messiah as merely an advance in a progressive revelation. God who had spoken by the prophets had now spoken in a still more authoritative way. It was a climax in the revelation, but that was all. They needed to learn that it was not merely a climax, but a crisis. For Christ was the fulfillment of the divine religion; and by the fact of His fulfilling it He abrogated it. In whole and in every part of it, that religion pointed to Him. Its mission was to prepare men for His advent, and to lead them to Him when He came. And now that He had come, any turning back to the religion was in effect a turning away from Christ.
Therefore is it that with such emphasis and elaboration Hebrews teaches us the divine glory of the Son of God, and the incomparable pre-eminence of His ministry in every aspect of it. For it is by way of contrast, rather than of comparison, that He is named, first with angels, and then with the apostle and the high-priest of the Jewish faith. Therefore is it that, in a way which to us seems laboured, the Epistle unfolds the truth that the divinely appointed shrine, with its divinely ordered ritual, and all its gorgeous furniture living and dead, were but the shadows of heavenly realities; and that, with the coming of the Son of God, the morning of shadows was past, for the light that cast them was now in the zenith of an eternal noon.
All this accounts for the many digressions by which the Apostle sought to reach the goal of his crowning exhortation in chapter 10 - digressions due to prevailing ignorance and error. For in "the Judaism of the Pharisees," as in the false cult of Christendom, a priest means a sacrificing priest - an error which is not only antichristian, but which, as the Apostle declares in chapter 5:12, betrays ignorance of "the rudiments of the first principles of the oracles of God." And deferring for the present any fuller notice of these digressions, let us now consider the wonderful words of that exhortation. "Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by the way which He dedicated for us, a new and living way, through the veil, that is to say, His flesh; and having a great priest over the house of God; let us draw near with a true heart in fullness of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water. (Hebrews 19:19-22)
To come, or draw near, is one of the "key words" of the Epistle.2 It occurs first in the exhortation of chapter 4:16, "Having a great high-priest … let us draw near with boldness unto the throne of grace." As the tense of the verb indicates, this is not an act to be done once for all, as when a sinner comes to God for salvation; it is the habit of the true Christian, who is ever conscious of his need of mercy and grace. Still more plainly does this appear in chapter 7:25, where Christians are characteristically called, "comers unto God," drawing near to Him being their normal attitude and habit. And the man of faith is similarly designated in chapter 11:6. In the opening words of chapter 10, therefore, the worshipper is described as one who thus comes or draws near. And this same word is prominent in the exhortation of the twenty-second verse.
The figurative language here employed - the blood, the veil, the sprinkled heart, the washed body - so perplexing to Gentile exegesis, would be plain and simple to the Hebrew Christian, for it is the language of the typology of that divine religion in which he had been trained. The Israelite, as we have seen, set out upon his journey to the land of promise as one of a redeemed and holy people. But, being none the less a sinner, he was ever liable to fall; and though his sin did not put him back under either the doom or the bondage of Egypt, it necessarily barred his approaching the sanctuary. His exclusion, moreover, must have been permanent if there had been no provision for atonement. And if this was true in relation to "a sanctuary of this world," how intensely true must it be for us who have to do with the spiritual realities of which that sanctuary was but a shadow. Therefore is it that in the teaching of Hebrews "to make atonement3 for the sins of the people" is given such prominence in enumerating the priestly functions of Christ. But Hebrews teaches in part by contrast; and whereas the Israelite had to bring a fresh sin-offering every time he sinned ("because it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins"), atonement for us is based upon the one great sacrifice which in fact accomplished what these typical offerings were powerless to effect. And yet, I repeat, the need of atonement is deeper in our case than it was with the Israelite; and were it not for the work of our Great High-priest in the presence of God, our sins as Christians would preclude our ever entering that holy presence during all our life on earth.
If a citizen be guilty of a crime, his conviction and sentence will dispose of the judicial question raised by his offence; and yet if he formerly enjoyed the right of entree at the palace, nothing short of a royal pardon will restore to him that privilege. This parable may serve to illustrate one aspect of the truth here in question. Although the believer has vicariously suffered the judicial consequences of his sin, that sin would none the less bar his ever again approaching God, were it not that by confession and the atoning work of Christ he obtains forgiveness.
But even though a citizen may have an acknowledged right to appear at Court, he may not enter the royal presence mud-splashed or travel-soiled; and wilderness defilement, even though contracted innocently, precluded the Israelite from entering the sacred enclosure. And for this also there was full provision. But no special sin-offering was needed. The unclean person was purged, first by being sprinkled with "the water of purification" - water that owed its efficacy to the great sin-offering - and then by bathing his entire body. The ritual is given in detail in Numbers 19. The victim was burnt to ashes. The ashes were preserved, and water that had flowed over them availed to cleanse. A sin required blood-shedding, defilement was purged by this water (Hebrews 9:13). And, as we have seen, the blood-shedding was the act of the man who sinned; so here, no priest was needed; any clean person could perform the rite (Numbers 19:18), thus indicating that the sprinkling and the washing are not the work of Christ for us, but indicate our own responsibility to seek the restoration of communion with God by faith and repentance.
This typical ordinance of the water of purification, though ignored in our theology, fills an important place in the teaching of Scripture. It is the keynote of the great prophecy of Ezekiel 36, 37, which loomed so large in Jewish hopes - a prophecy Nicodemus' ignorance of which evoked the Lord's indignant rebuke, "Art thou a teacher of Israel and knowest not these things!" (John 3:10)
"Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you and ye shall be clean," is the promise of the twenty-fifth verse of chapter 36, addressed to the earthly people. But though gathered out of all countries and brought into their own land (verse 24), they are likened in the next chapter to dry bones lying on the ground. And then follows the great. Regeneration: "Come, O breath, and breathe upon these slain"; and the Spirit of God enters into them, and they live (verses 9, 10, 14). This is "the birth of water and the Spirit," ignorance of which on the part of a Rabbi of the Sanhedrim was as shameful as it would be for a Christian teacher not to recognize an allusion to the Nicodemus sermon. And in its application to ourselves, this is "the loutron of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost" of Titus 3:5. The word "regeneration" occurs only once again in the New Testament, namely in Matthew 19:25, where the Lord uses it with reference to the fulfillment of this very prophecy of Ezekiel 36-37. And the only other mention of the loutron explains its symbolic meaning. I refer to Ephesians 5:26: "that He might sanctify and cleanse it (the Church) with the loutron of water by the word."4 Whether it be a question of salvation for an individual sinner, or of the national regeneration of Israel, the blessing depends upon the "once for all" sacrifice of Christ, and the work of the Holy Spirit. But the great blood-shedding is past; Calvary is never to be repeated, and it is only by the "living and eternally abiding word of God," ministered by the Holy Spirit, that sinners are born again. 1 Peter 1:23.
And as it was by recourse to the water of purification that the Israelite proved the continuing efficacy of the sin-offering to purge him from defilement, so is it with us. But we have the reality of which the water was only a type; and by constant recourse to the Word of God, and by the repentance which that Word produces in us, we prove the efficacy of the death of Christ to maintain us in the position of acceptance and access to God, which redemption gives us. When a Christian whose secular pursuits are uncongenial to the spiritual life turns away from them to acts of worship or of service, he can appreciate the words of the exhortation, "Let us draw near…having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience." But the exhortation adds, "and our bodies washed with pure water." Without the sprinkling of the water of purification, the bath would be unavailing; and to resort to the sprinkling while neglecting the bath would be to appeal to the atoning work of Christ without turning away from evil. For such is the figurative meaning of washing in Scripture. It signifies only and always practical purity. To read baptism into the passage is to fritter away its force and meaning, for it relates to the privileges and responsibilities of the Christian life, and not to the position accorded to the sinner on his coming to Christ for salvation. And more than this, such a perversion of the text implies the confounding of Christian baptism with the pagan rite of the Eleusinian mysteries.5