At the conclusion of a recent discussion with theological students in Perth about our current failure to experience revival, and the general short life of revival movements, I believe God gave me the following simple picture. It was of a pool of blood covering a patch of ground, and as I watched it was covered over with earth.
The interpretation is that the blood signifies the blood of Jesus whose function it is before God to cover our sins. The earth obscuring the blood from sight represents all sorts of human activities being undertaken by the church in an attempt to pacify the disturbed human conscience. These efforts to put the conscience at peace are futile, for it is only “the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from works that lead to death to worship the living God.” (Heb 9:14).
In this paper I will first discuss a biblical attitude to perfection and then move on to relate this to some contemporary problems.
Blood, Conscience and Perfection in Scripture
In context, the writer to the Hebrews makes it plain that Christ as high priest operates in “the greater and perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation)” (Heb 9:11). The consistent framework of this, the New Testament letter, that focuses most on what we today would call “worship”, is not the earth but heaven. In common with the rest of the New Testament the writer shows no real or detailed interest in “worship services” in Christian assemblies. We are simply not given a descriptive account of what was going on when believers met together. Various ministries of Word and sacraments were present, along with spiritual gifts (1 Cor 11:17- 34; 12 -14; Eph 5:19- 20;Col 3:16 -17 etc.), but it is impossible to work out anything like “an order of service”. This is not simply accidental or cultural.
Theologically, the reason for this appears to be the exalted and heavenly status of the church. The church is spiritually united to where Christ is, raised and in the heavenly sphere with him (Eph 1:3, 2:5 – 6;Col 1:15– 20, 3:1 – 3). To belong to this church is to be the children of the “heavenly Jerusalem” (Gal 4:25– 27). Our membership is not of a mere earthly but heavenly community (Phil 3:20).
According to Hebrews our focus is not to be on earthly phenomena, however spectacular, but on the fact that we are part of the assembly of the “heavenly Jerusalem” (Heb 12:18– 24). This is a realm that “cannot be touched” (v.18), in other words, it is not dominated by the material and sensual.
We are to recognise our union with the “spirits of the righteous made perfect” (v.23). In Hebrews, these are the Old Testament believers who “would not, apart from us, be made perfect.” (11:39). The perfection that we share with them is a reality now that does not depend upon any of our efforts. The author is very clear that we are not morally complete, “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” (10:14).
This perfection related in Hebrews is total access to God registered in a conscience set free by the blood of Christ. “Since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary (i.e. in heaven) by the blood of Jesus… let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience…” (10:19, 21). This “sprinkling” refers to the shedding of blood through which all Christians are fully (perfectly) forgiven (8:12;10:17-18). Another way the author speaks of this is that there is “no longer any consciousness of sin” (10:2). Jesus sacrifice has “removed sin” (9:26). If sin has been removed, then judgement has been taken away and our conscience can be fully at peace before God. (What Hebrews teaches in the language of perfection, Paul expounds in justification e.g. Rom 5:1; 8:1.)
The conclusion of all this is that the one perfect thing that can exist within this creation, and so the only human faculty that can unite us to the heavenly new creation in which nothing imperfect can dwell, is the conscience (9:9). That is, the conscience delivered from both excuse and abuse (Rom 2:15) through being impacted by the blood of Jesus. Everything else in this life testifies to us that we are in a fallen world that has lost the glory of God (Rom 3:23). No one has a mind, body or life – experience that can reasonably claim to be complete or ultimate. Yet it seems to me, much of current church culture focuses exactly on providing perfect experiences of “God” during “worship”.
This contemporary form of perfectionism is very difficult for the older forms of this error, but its long term impact is the same. No one today claims that we may live a life without conscious sin; this form of moralism is simply uninteresting to modern western people.
Nevertheless, we are presented in the church with images and utterances, permeated with increasing technological sophistication, that convey to us an endless ascent of ever more glorious and enjoyable experiences of God. These messages are presented by people whose lives after to have “made it” and who possess “personality plus”. They are, unlike us, persons of extraordinary artistic and verbal talent.
These experiences however never seem to be related to the status of a conscience set free from guilt by the blood of Christ. Indeed, the terminology of “blood” appears to have disappeared from most of the vocabulary of the church. Yet, within the understanding of the apostles the dynamic impact of Jesus blood is taught as indispensable (Rom 3:25; Eph 1:7;Col 1:14; 1 Pet 1:2, 19; 1 John 1:7; Rev 1:5; 5:9 etc). Images of blood may not go down well with our culture and some of the “super- churches” of our day, but how else can the Spirit convey the truth of Jesus cruel death on the cross?
I am persuaded by both biblical theology and personal experience that our present sanitised church culture is incompatible with genuine and beautiful holiness. It is no accident that there are so many burnt out Christian leaders in our churches today. (Unfortunately this fact is sometimes concealed from their congregations.) Their own consciences, reflecting back to them through the people to whom they minister, are repeatedly driving them to “reach another level”. Contrary to this, the witness of Christ’s blood to the conscience opens up to us the fact that we are already, in him, on the highest level (Eph 1:17- 22).
Such a perfect conscience can rightfully claim that its true position is to rule the world. Not to rule this one, through perishing wealth, health or position, but rule in the one to come (Rom 5:17; 1 Cor 6:2;Rev 5:10) where God will be all in all. (1 Cor 15:28)
How distressing it is to see the church today so focussed on the external and the material – things like numbers and sense experiences. If these things have a certain significance, it is as a consequence of the triumph of the gospel, the gospel that unhesitatingly speaks of the blood of Jesus. Without a return to this apostolic message, no matter what else appears to be happening, any outbreak of a move of God will founder on an unreformed conscience (Heb 9:10).
I wonder what those things are in our lives – popularity, money, respectability, title, ministry achievements, doctrinal accuracy, intense emotional experiences, which are covering over the blood of Jesus?