Strange and wonderful it is to read that we have a sacrifice to make to God. Our sacrifice is not atoning, for to our Savior’s once-for-all sacrifice, we can add nothing. We need add nothing, for by his blood he has obtained our eternal redemption (Heb. 9:12; 10:14). To affirm that there is anything lacking in his sacrifice to obtain our pardon for sin or justifying righteousness is to consign ourselves to everlasting hell. If his sacrifice could not reconcile us to God, certainly there is nothing we can add that could make up for any lack in it. But there is no lack, and this is one point in the previous verses. He suffered outside the camp. He was consumed for our sins, and our sins are carried away from God’s presence and buried in the depths of the sea. “There is no condemnation” is thus the best news anyone can ever hear. When we stand before God, there is no judgment to fear and no restitution to make. No hell opens wide its mouth to receive us. Jesus Christ has suffered all the wrath and curse we deserved, born all our shame, and suffered himself to be consumed with the sorrows of hell and death for our sake. God has put away our transgressions and remembers them no more.
Continual Praise and Confession (v. 15)
Offered through Christ Alone
The implication of “Jesus paid it all” is not “I need do nothing.” Too often the just desire to protect the all-sufficiency of Christ’s atoning sacrifice has led to a sort of do-nothing attitude. This is usually from a misguided fear that any emphasis upon works must inevitably undermine salvation by grace alone through faith. We learn, however, that the powerful implication of Christ’s death is the Christian’s vibrant response of praise and good works. These are not meritorious. In fact, as the apostle closes the letter, he places “by him” in the prominent grammatical position. It is by Christ, by his atoning sacrifice, by his cleansing blood, that we offer these sacrifices of praise and obedience. Their worth lies not in that they come from our hands but that they are cleansed by Christ’s – his sacrifice and intercession at the Father’s right hand. Surely if we had a clearer understanding of the merits of Christ in heaven, praise and good works as sacrifice would not scare us but elevate the splendor of our Savior. All our lives are acceptable to God through him as a living sacrifice. We are not identified with Christ once only, but ever after we do all in his name. When we pray and praise, obey and serve, God accepts these as sacrifices of praise and confession because of his Son. This is one important reason that Christians are followers of Jesus. It is not simply that we need initial cleansing, forgiveness, righteousness, and acceptance with God; we require continual representation from Christ, for his worthiness alone makes our feeble offerings pleasing to our loving Father. Never should the Christian forget that he needs Jesus Christ at every stage of his life and journey.
A Sacrifice of Praise (Hos. 14:3)
Hosea anticipated the day would come when bloody sacrifices would be ended and that our calves would be praise and thanksgiving (Hos. 14:3). This is the Old Testament source for Hebrews 12:15, and it is an important historical and theological observation. After the finished work of Jesus Christ, we still have a sacrifice to make, but it is one of praise and adoration. We tend to belittle this idea or offer the sacrifice quickly because we can. It was not possible to offer quickly a lawful sacrifice under the Levitical system. Atonement is serious business; praise is no less serious business, and it is hardly a sacrifice worthy of the name if it is hastily muttered sitting in the drive-thru waiting for your order. What God has done for us in Christ is serious! Wonderful! Worthy of our careful praise! The more we understand Christ’s sufferings and sacrifice, the greater our wonder and the fuller our praise will be.
And although his sacrifice was once-offered, its benefits come to us without ceasing, which is the reason we must praise God continually for his indescribable gift of life and salvation through his Son. Would not the church thrive and be strong and remain focused if she praised God continually for his grace and mercy in Jesus Christ? Would we not be more constant in following Christ, resisting temptation, and loving one another if we were praising him day and night for his sufferings and sacrifice for us? If we reach a place where Christ’s sacrifice does not much move us, or when hearing the preacher tell the old gospel story makes us squirm a bit, our hearts have surely grown cold. Our first love has been lost. There is not a higher religious plane upon which little thought needs to be given to the saving work and sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The highest plane is a life of praise, when we offer our bodies, our lives, and our praises to God continually as a living sacrifice (Rom. 12:1). Our God and Savior is pleased with these sacrifices. That they are called sacrifices should quicken us to give him our best when it comes to praise and service, not the least with which we can get away. Perhaps we should think of the sacrifice in this way. When we offer half-hearted praise, distracted praise, it is the same as bringing a three-legged or one-eyed lamb to the priest. We do this daily, and yet few are alarmed by the poor quality of our praise or the coldness that seems to satisfy us. It is no wonder that God seems so far away. He has given everything in his Son, and we offer back to him crumbs and dust. At least let us be inspired to sing his praise more heartily, to obey him more carefully, and to struggle against our sins more manfully. He has done great things for us, and he is worthy.
Confessing His Name
There were a variety of sacrifices prescribed under the Levitical economy. One sort was that of free-will or thanksgiving offerings. By these, the worshipper expressed his thanksgiving to God for mercies received. This is undoubtedly in the apostle’s mind – God has done great things for us – we respond with worship, our praise and thanksgiving. The phrase at the end of verse 15 is sometimes translated “giving thanks to his name,” but it is more correctly translated “confessing his name.” Thanksgiving would be a part of this, but this sacrifice is more specific. It is ascribing to God the sole glory for doing great things for us, saving us through his Son, crushing him instead of sending us to hell forever. Confession is a sacrifice in that we tell God and man that from God alone we have received all good and blessing. He has saved us in Christ – praise him! Praise him! Tell among the peoples his doings, and confess his saving grace among men. Has he answered our prayers, fulfilled his covenant promises to our children, provided for us? We have received untold blessings from him, but how slow we are to offer him the sincere confession of our hearts. “Lord, you have done this. What do I have that I have not received from you?”
Before men, this confession is a vital part of our witness in the world. The blind need to hear us confessing that all our good comes from God. You are such a nice person, they say. You respond, No, I am a sinner, but Jesus Christ has cleansed me and given me his Spirit to curb my horrible sins and help me. You have such well-behaved children; you must be great parents. No, God keeps his promises to me and my children. I could do nothing apart from his goodness to me. Confession is a vital way we keep the incense rising to heaven and fill the earth with God’s glory. Wherever we are, and especially in our Lord’s Day worship, when the gospel trumpet calls us together on the first day of the week, we make our sincere, earnest, and careful sacrifices to God. We praise him for his excellent greatness and his saving love. We confess that all the good we have, he gave it to us. We did not deserve anything but hell. The worst disease and pain, or the hardest losses and sufferings that anyone can endure, these are still far less than we deserve. All praise to God for his goodness and grace to us in Christ.
Good Works and Fellowship (v. 16)
Do Not Forget to Do Good and to Share
Still looking for ways to say “thank you” to our merciful Father, the apostle turns to good works. He speaks of “doing good,” which ought to remind us of Peter’s remark about our Lord Jesus, that he “went about doing good” (Acts 10:38). “Doing good service” was the apostle’s directive to slaves (Eph. 6:7), and here the significance of good works is elevated to be one of the sacrifices of praise we make to God. It is fine and necessary to speak praise, but we must also live praise. Good works for the Christian have nothing to do with meriting God’s favor or earning heaven. They have everything to do with praising God and union with Jesus Christ. The fruits of righteousness, as the apostle calls them in another place, are by Jesus Christ (Phil. 1:11). As we walk in fellowship with him, we shall be fruitful in good works (John 15:1-11; 2 Pet. 1:8). It is impossible for us to walk with Jesus and not be fruitful. But we must remember to do good. It is easy for the Christian to forget doing good to others as the extension of his praise and confession to God. We become absorbed with our affairs, or in the case with these Hebrews, with the troubles of life. We forget others. Being redeemed by his blood does not mean we are freed immediately from the sinful flesh and worrying about our earthly lives. We have to fight against fear all our days. Most Christian fighting begins with remembering – what Jesus has done for us; where he is and what he is doing at the Father’s right hand; how we should live since he has lived and died for us. We would be readier to do good if we kept his love and sufferings in constant memory.
This is especially true when it comes to “sharing,” as the King James translates the common word for “fellowship.” When troubles come, we tend to forget our corporate duty to minister to one another. It is easy to fall into an “every man for himself” kind of thinking. But in this world, believers need constant fellowship. If you do not want it or feel your need for it, something is very wrong with you. Christ’s life in us by the Spirit means that his love for his brothers and sisters will enter into our very essence as Christians. And then when trouble comes, we shall want to be with other believers to encourage them and to receive encourage from them. Think about what is being said here. The executioner may be coming, but do not hide from one another. Do not think that you can bear your earthly trials alone. Perhaps you need the attitude adjustment or even the rebuke of a fellow-believer – be joyful! Why are you afraid? Do you not know that Jesus Christ rules the raging seas of life? We need to hear these things from one another. We need to cry together, bear one another’s burdens, and feel at liberty, at perfect liberty, to share the grief and sorrows of the soul, as well as to confess our sins to one another so that we can pray for each other. Our Lord Jesus never calls us to make a solitary pilgrimage to heaven. The way may be narrow, but we are crowded upon it together, each encouraging the other to hold fast to Christ. Do not forget this.
God Is Pleased with These Sacrifices
If we need further encouragement, God likes these sacrifices very well. This should be enough. The Lord likes it when I share my food, money, time, or home with other believers. Let me fling open the doors, give away what he has given me, spend and be spent for my brothers and sisters. Our Father who loved us and crucified his Son is well pleased when we do good to one another – give, pray, share, encourage, challenge? By all means, then, let us seek greater strength in Jesus Christ to do these little goods that please him so much and that our Savior will remember on the last day as having been done unto him! Personal piety is unto public piety and good works. Fail to seek daily fellowship with Christ, and your ability to do good must falter, and then God’s praise is withheld. And think ahead, to the last day and eternity, when there must be crowns, innumerable crowns to cast at the feet of Jesus Christ. These crowns are the good works of praise and service we do now. Some do not like this kind of talk, for it makes them fearful that salvation, after all, is not really freely gracious. It is, and it is also powerfully transforming. We are strengthened by the Spirit to do good works, which will be rewarded in heaven, and which rewards will be cast at the feet of Jesus in heaven, with the whole multitude of men and angels singing WORTHY TO THE LAMB THAT WAS SLAIN.
As much as we love Jesus Christ, therefore, as much as we love the gospel of free grace, which teaches us to live godly, soberly, and righteously in the world (Tit. 2:11-12), let each one of us seek to offer these sacrifices to God. Let us be continually praising him – you will find your heart lighter and your complaints less as you stop wasting energy upon worries and frets and hurts you have suffered from others. Let each one of us confess that all the good we have comes from our God, that we are unworthy of the least of his mercies, and that all the worthiness is Jesus Christ our Head and Surety. Christians are not glory-hogs; they are glory deflectors – all glory to God, to the Lamb, and to the Spirit who has taught us these truths and liberated us from serving the worst imaginable, most tyrannical gods – sin and self. Let each one of us resolve to go about doing good, in the strength of Jesus Christ, according to God’s will, so that we are ready to share, open our homes and hearts, and comfort all fellow-believers. Perhaps God is so little known now in Western countries because Christians have abandoned the altar of Christ and the sacrifices that please God so much. Let us rebuild faith in this one altar, Jesus Christ and his finished work, and by him offer to God the sacrifices that set us apart as his worshippers and confess to the world that he is worthy of all praise and service.
Obedience to Church Rulers (v. 17)
The Duty: Obedience and Submission
Although the language of sacrifice is not used in reference to this command to obey their rulers, obedience is a confirming seal of our faith and devotion to God (Matt. 7:23; Luke 6:36; 1 John 5:1-3). It ought to arrest our attention when we see the marked distinction between those “doing lawlessness” and those who “do good.” The former will hear, “Depart from me,” while the latter will hear, “Well done.” It is also evident that these believers needed to be reminded of their duty to obey and yield to their church leaders, for they encouraged the people to stand fast during persecution. A hard command to obey! Hold fast to Christ, and you may suffer and die; drift away from him, and you may save your skin but lose your soul. Few choose the life to come over the present life, but these pastors and elders were apparently commanding these believers to do just that. Their former leaders had blazed a trail of faithfulness (13:7), and if they will listen to their present leaders, all will be well. Sadly, however, we quickly lose the godly impressions made by dead pastors, and we easily ignore our living ones. Especially if they are unimpressive or have other flaws that test our willingness to yield, then God is sifting us. Shall we obey them out of reverence to him? Will we yield to them only when we agree with them? The duty commanded here is that when godly leaders preach, teach, and govern in terms of God’s word, then we are bound to obey them. A disobedient and stubborn spirit dishonors Christ and will pollute any other sacrifices we offer to him. He likes nothing better than obedience (1 Sam. 15:22). It is the sacrifice that pleases him most.
The Reckoning: To the Chief Shepherd
Ever merciful and knowing our many weaknesses, the Lord gives us a description of the work of pastors and elders. If people and pastors took it to heart as they should, there would be far more mutual prayer and assistance given and far less complaining. First, he reminds the people that their pastors and elders tirelessly watch over them. The verb implies sleeplessness or at least intense watchfulness, so that although pastors cannot be with you day and night, or may visit infrequently, nevertheless, you are never long out of their minds. They pray for you constantly. They warn you even when warnings are unwelcome. They try to set a good example for you. If a pastor were paid a king’s ransom to watch over you, it would be small recompense for the grief he feels for the sheep, the hours he spends praying for them, and the burden he carries for them. As Paul once wrote to the Corinthians, “Who does not fall into sin, and I do not inwardly burn” (2 Cor. 11:29)? No man would undertake such a responsibility unless called of God. No man who is legitimately called rests easily while even one sheep wanders. He knows that an accounting is coming, not to men, but to God.
All the sermons in the world so carefully prepared, all the accolades and support that may be given, none amounts to a penny if a pastor does not have Christ’s approbation. And this is where the verse contains a description and indirect plea to church leaders to be such men who tirelessly watch over the sheep. There may be any number of reasons why a man may want to preach or govern in Christ’s church. Motives are diverse, and not all are noble. But this one should seriously alarm and awaken all godly men who profess to have a call from God. Be sure that if Jesus Christ loses none of his sheep, he will demand an accounting for each one he places under your care. For rulers young and old, this is a sobering thought. When you want to entertain yourself or make a name for yourself, ask, “Have I prayed ardently for Christ’s lambs, for he died for them? Have I warned as faithfully as he would have me? Have I a set a good example for them and walked closely with Christ so that I would have his strength to do so?”
If we took this more to heart, it would give courage, meekness, and diligence in the duties of proclamation, governing, and discipline. Courage would come, for if we are to stand before Christ, then absolutely nothing – not the wrath of the devil, the threatening of wayward sheep, or the mockery of the world – must prevent us from watching over those for whom he shed his precious blood. And since the accounting will be to him, we must win the sheep to him, which necessitates great meekness, otherwise the sheep will not listen or follow. And diligence – no wonder that James warned us against becoming teachers (3:1) – it is sufficiently sobering to think of answering to Christ for one’s own life, but for another’s? No wonder the apostle confessed with honest self-abhorrence and weakness, “Who is sufficient for these things?” Christ in us is sufficient, and if we are seeking him, he will give us all we need to stand boldly in the day of reckoning. Then, we shall throw yet more crowns at his feet.
The Incentive: Joy to Them and Blessing to You
Since we would rather choose almost any other sacrifice than obedience, we are given a final incentive. Obedience to our church leaders gives them joy. More than any money or notoriety or appreciation, a godly leader wants to see Christ’s sheep walking in the truth. This is his greatest joy (3 John 4). He has your future meeting with Christ before him perhaps more than you do. And if you are faithful to the Lord Jesus, you will want to bring him the joy of seeing you faithful to the gospel and obedient to his just commands. You have a duty to make your pastors and elders joyful when they think of you. And by making him joyful, if we can flip the final words, it will be an extremely profitable relationship for the sheep – profitable now through joy and encouragement, profitable unto eternity through Christ’s approbation and everlasting gladness. He states this negatively. If we are not obedient to the gospel, then our leaders will find their responsibilities to be a grave challenge and sadness. Then, it cannot but be that a relationship that Christ ordained for mutual joy and good, will bring to you great sorrow and disappointment.
This is one reason so many hop to a different church when they cannot agree with a minister or find fault with their elders. This is understandable at one level, for church leaders and members are weak and grow frustrated with each other. Perhaps both should remember the final accounting. Pastors will give an answer for each sheep. Should that not make you think twice about thwarting their efforts, being unapproachable, or difficult to talk to? And do you want a profitable bond with a man called and equipped by Jesus Christ to help you to heaven? Make his calling an easier one by seeking the grace to obey and have a yielded spirit. Nothing is more terrifying for the prospects of the church than pastors and elders who are asleep, neglect the sheep, and will not warn and go after the wayward. Close behind are sheep who run off as soon as they are confronted for their sins. And let all church leaders remember that a day of accounting approaches. Throw off the mantle of laziness and neglect. Be in earnest for the good of Christ’s sheep. Your service to them may be thankless now, but he takes it as personally given to him. He will never forget it.