Quieting the Conscience, Pt. 1
Hebrews 8:1-14 “Quieting the Conscience”
In 1984 an Avianca Airlines jet crashed in Spain. Investigators studying the accident made an eerie discovery. The "black box" cockpit recorders revealed that several minutes before impact a shrill, computer-synthesized voice from the plane's automatic warning system told the crew repeatedly in English, "Pull up! Pull up!"
The pilot, evidently thinking the system was malfunctioning, snapped, "Shut up, Gringo!" and switched the system off. Minutes later the plane plowed into the side of a mountain. Everyone on board died.
Conscience has been succinctly described as the "soul distinguishing between what is morally good and bad, prompting to do the former and shun the latter."
Webster defines conscience as the sense or consciousness of the moral goodness or blameworthiness of one’s own conduct, intentions, or character together with a feeling of obligation to do right or be good.
In addition to an innate awareness of God’s law, men have a warning system that activates when they choose to ignore or disobey that law. It's that instinctive, built-in sense of right and wrong that activates guilt.
All mankind has an innate inner sense of right and wrong which Scripture refers to as conscience. And so sociologist have encountered in all cultures a sense of sin and fear of judgment which leads that culture to make some attempt to appease whatever gods are feared and this built in "moral/ethical radar detector" (so to speak) is what Paul is alludes to in Romans 2.
Conscience is like a sundial
When the truth of God shines on it,
It points in the right direction.
Where is your "sundial" pointing today dear reader?
Conscience is a trustworthy compass when God's Word is your true north.
A good conscience is one of the best friends you'll ever have.
To ignore your conscience is to invite trouble.
Conscience is a safe guide when guided by God's Word.
A clear conscience is a soft pillow.
If God’s Word guides your conscience, let your conscience be your guide.
If you can't hear God speaking, check the volume control of your conscience.
F F Bruce - Paul uses conscience (and perhaps he was the first to do so) in the sense of an independent witness within, which examines and passes judgment on one’s conduct. In Christians this examination and judgment should be specially accurate because their conscience is enlightened by the Holy Spirit (cf. Ro 9:1).
Conscience (4893) (suneidesis is derived from sun/syn = with + eido = know) literally means a "knowing with", a co-knowledge with oneself or a being of one's own witness in the sense that one's own conscience "takes the stand" as the chief witness, testifying either to one's innocence or guilt. It describes the witness borne to one's conduct by that faculty by which we apprehend the will of God.
The Greek noun suneidesis is the exact counterpart of the Latin con-science, “a knowing with,” a shared or joint knowledge. It is our awareness of ourselves in all the relationships of life, especially ethical relationships. We have ideas of right and wrong; and when we perceive their truth and claims on us, and will not obey, our souls are at war with themselves and with the law of God
Suneidesis is that process of thought which distinguishes what it considers morally good or bad, commending the good, condemning the bad, and so prompting to do the former and avoid the latter.
It is reported that a tribe in Africa had an unusual but effective way to test the guilt of an accused person. A group of suspects would be lined up and the tongue of each would be touched with a hot knife. If saliva was on the tongue the blade would sizzle but cause little pain. But if the tongue was dry, the blade would stick and create a vicious, searing burn. The tribe knew that a sense of guilt tends to make a person’s mouth dry, and a seared tongue therefore was taken as proof of guilt. The making of such a dry mouth is, of course, the work of the conscience. [MacArthur]
Conscience is like an inner judge that accuses and condemns us when we have done wrong and approves and commends us when we have done right. The conscience varies in sensitivity, depending on the degree of one’s knowledge of and feeling about right and wrong.
The person who has considerable knowledge of God’s Word will have a more sensitive conscience than someone who has never had opportunity to know Scripture. Furthermore, repeated sinning hardens the conscience so that it becomes “seared” like scar tissue (1Ti 4:2). To continually reject God’s truth causes the conscience to become progressively calloused, hardened and less sensitive to sin, as if covered with layers of unspiritual scar tissue.
There is an interesting parallel in tropical medicine which has discovered that the gross disfigurement so commonly seen in individuals with leprosy is not due to the leprosy bacterium per se, but is secondary to the organism's destruction of the nerve fibers that convey a sense of pain and touch. Unprotected by the body's natural warning signals the leper repeatedly injures the extremity with cuts, burns, infections, etc, all without even realizing that he is injured! This is exactly the picture of the seared conscience which becomes insensitive to sin and may eventually cease sending warning signals. Thus, though God has His work within every man resulting in conscience, man can corrupt that work, so that the "sin sensitivity" rating of the conscience varies from person to person.
[J.C. Ryle] Conscience is a most important part of our inward man, and plays a most prominent part in our spiritual history. It cannot save us. It never yet led any one to Christ. It is blind, and liable to be misled. It is lame and powerless, and cannot guide us to heaven. Yet conscience is not to be despised.
It is the minister's best friend, when he stands up to rebuke sin from the pulpit. It is the mother's best friend, when she tries to restrain her children from evil and quicken them to good. It is the teacher's best friend, when he presses home on boys and girls their moral duties. Happy is he who never stifles his conscience, but strives to keep it tender! Still happier is he who prays to have it enlightened by the Holy Spirit, and sprinkled with Christ's blood. (John - chapter 8)
We need inward peace. So long as our conscience is asleep, deadened by indulged sin, or dulled and stupefied by incessant pursuit of the things of this world—so long can that man get on tolerably well without peace with God. But once let conscience open its eyes, and shake itself, and rise, and move—and it will make the stoutest child of Adam feel ill at ease. The irrepressible thought that this life is not all—that there is a God, and a judgment, and a something after death, an undiscovered destiny from which no traveler returns—that thought will come up at times in every man's mind, and make him long for inward peace.
* Opening Illustrations from https://www.preceptaustin.org/conscience
Ignoring our consciences is to our own detriment.
- In fact, the secret to joy in Christian life is having a clean conscience.
- You cannot serve the living God and honor him with your entire self without knowing you are clean!
- “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and enjoy him forever!”
- If you miss this end your life is sad and you are missing out.
- Serving God is the only way to fully live.
- Without a life focused on serving God, you are not a whole person!
- Like someone fishing on dry land!You are trying things but ending up hopeless!
Your marriage bed is never fully undefiled, your parenting never feels fully empowered, your relationships have taint of self-interest, your personal walk feels one dimensional.
“How do I break through to draw near to God again, with a stained conscience?”
- Easy to fall into the vicious cycle of a wounded heart.
- Practically speaking. As a believer, you can break free, through the ministry of the Word and Spirit, through informing your conscience with truth!
- Downloading the doctrine of salvation to your conscience destroys the virus called sin!
1. Israel’s dilemma (vv. 1-10)
What their high priest could do and not do
At first reading, verses 1-5 in terms of a modern 21st century mindset describing the “Tabernacle” can easily be dismissed as foreign! Doesn’t apply!
- This is especially the case without the Holy Spirit.
- This was not the problem of the early church Christian (especially with a Jewish descent).
- The writer is arguing help for the conscience by comparing the Old Covenant and then the New.
Verses 1-5 begins with the layout and furnishings of the wilderness Tabernacle.
- Verse 5 concludes, “Of these things we cannot now speak in detail” (v. 5).
- No need to talk through the furniture in detail.
- Jewish readers understood the desert sanctuary and its regulations.
- However, for the 21st century Christian feel the effects of and Old system compared with the New, we need to tap into our Sanctified Imaginations! Need to see its significance!
Israel’s portable Tabernacle was situated at the geographical heart of Israel.
- All 12 tribes camped around it in a designated order.
- White linen walls of the Court of the Tabernacle made an enclosure 150 ft. long and 75 ft. wide.
- The whiteness of walls broadcasted holiness.
- Where they practiced worship in their “earthly place of holiness” (v. 1).
- This is the old period of history!
Let us enter into their worship. When the worshipper entered the courtyard. This is what he saw.
- The front courtyard contained the Altar of Burnt Offering, a large bronze altar with a horn at each of its four corners, where offerings were tied.
- This was as far as the layman could come, where he laid his hands on the head of the sin offering (Lev. 1:4).
- To the right was a washbasin exclusive for the priests, not to be neglected to his own personal detriment (Ex. 30:21, 21).
- Behind the laver was the Tabernacle, a flat-roofed, oblong tent fifteen feet in height and width and forty-five feet long.
- Covered with three layers.
- Gorgeous woven tapestries, then overlaid with two layers of animal skins.
The Tabernacle divided into two rooms by an ornate veil woven of same colors along with gold and embroidered with cherubim.
- Veil supported by four golden columns set on silver bases.
- The first outer room was called the Holy Place.
- The second inner room the Most Holy Place or Holy of Holies.
Again, Christians use their sanctified imaginations to see the temple and the dignity of holiness it represented! What early Jewish Christians knew and were still holding onto to a fault!
Verse 2 describes, “The first section” or “first room” where there was a “lampstand, table and consecrated bread of the Presence, called the Holy Place” (v. 2).
- Lampstand made of solid gold, three branches springing from either side and each of its seven branches supporting a flower-shaped lamp holder (Ex. 25:31; 37:17).
- The table, called “the table of the Presence” (Num. 4:7), contained 12 loaves of bread, one for each tribe.
- These were all prophetic of Christ. Christ is Heaven’s glory, the light of the world, the bread of life!
Hebrew’s author is equally brief about the Holy of Holies.
- Behind the second section was called “the Most Holy Place” (v. 3).
- This had the golden altar of incense and the gold-covered ark of the covenant.
- The ark contained the gold jar of manna, Aaron’s staff that had budded, and the stone tablets of the covenant.
- Above the ark were the cherubim of the Glory, overshadowing the atonement cover (vv. 3-5).
When you have a feel for the Tabernacle, you begin to appreciate its worship.
- Daily worship was continual.
- Worshipers brought their sacrifices to the great bronze altar in the outer courtyard one after another.
- Week by week priests were chosen by lot to serve in the first room, the Holy Place.
Still, God’s idea of what his nation should have been in blessing was hindered.
- If God’s command had been fully followed, there would have been higher blessing.
- God’s presence there – Cloud by day, Pillar of fire by night!
- Holy people’s ordinary life surrounded by God’s presence! A divine ideal was being missed.
Israel’s dilemma was that their conscience could not be purged from dead works!
- They could not personally access the Holy of Holies where their sin on a heart level could be cleansed! On the level of the conscience!
The problem with sin is that it hits man in three ways.
- First, man is born a sinner in a sinful world.
- Second, man is tempted by sins of omission and third, sins of commission.
“How easy was it to transgress the law?”
- If a dead body was present (which was common then), if someone walked over a dead bone by accident he was defiled.
- John Owen spoke of the dilemma of being in a house where someone suddenly died. “What are you supposed to do?”
- It would not be anything but natural to deal with it.
- “Someone must lay out the corpse, array it for the funeral, lift it into the coffin, dig the grave, and cover it.”
- Although these were works of humanity and necessary, the law rendered these as unclean.
- This is general life depravity.
- The sins of omission, are what you should have done but did not do.
- Worshippers, then and now are plagued by this!
- What they failed to do in terms of witness, worship, and in terms of family and friends!
- Worse were the sins of commission. Knowing sins.
- For the most egregious deliberate, premeditative sins there was no sacrifice that could be made to atone.
- The premeditated sinner was in a huge dilemma!
- King David’s premeditated sin with Bathsheba and cold-blooded murder of Uriah.
- For the most egregious deliberate, premeditative sins there was no sacrifice that could be made to atone.
- The system simply did not provide a remedy.
- What Psalm 51 is all about.
- Hebrews 10:26 explains the dangerous state someone finds themselves who hardens instead of softens! (cf. Heb. 10:26).
These Jewish Christians were trying to retrace their steps asking, “What’s going wrong?” “My heart is not fresh anymore and conscience is noisy or hard! Externals are not helping me.”
Because of this early dilemma verse 6 describes the priests entering the outer tent continually, and verse 7 describes the high priest entering the Holy of Holies only once a year to make atonement for the people.
- In other words, in this stage in history, the way to God was (by comparison) very limited!
- God’s presence was sealed off behind the outer tent.
Approached once a year, only the high priest, and he had to go with blood, including blood for his own sins.
Verse 8 begins to interpret this old period in light of the early church.
- “By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing” (v. 8).
Then verse 9, “(which is symbolic for the present age).”
- “Symbolic” which in Greek means “parable” or “illustration.”
- The key to getting the illustration is the see the tent and ritual of the worshipper and God’s presence in terms of “that was then and this is now!”
Verses 9-10 further explains, “According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation” (vv. 9b-10).
- So, Israel’s limited access to God was symbolized by their first room access! The story of Israel’s worship.
- They couldn’t pierce the void, the couldn’t personally access the Holy of Holies and apply it to necessary cleansing effects!
- They could not get deep enough access for change!
Israel needed access to the second room! Needed access to go deeper, to deal with their sin on the level of the conscience!
ESV Mark 7:15 aThere is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him."
There needed to be “a time of reformation” (v. 10).
- Comparing verse 9a with 10b you see that the outer tent with furnishings with the separation from the Holy of Holies and God’s presence was symbolic of “the present age” (v. 9).
- External rituals relating to food and drink and washings were never enough.
“The time of reformation” is literally “the setting straight” specifically “the new order” (v. 10).
The Big Idea of Hebrews is to prove the coming of Christ into the world has put an end to “the present time” – applying an old limited access, external system!
Instead, there was a “reformation” where Christ replaces the high priest, temple, blood of animals, food and drink rituals with Himself! Who we need to cleanse a stained conscience!
Albert Speer [“Shpair”] was once interviewed on ABC’s Good Morning, America about his last book. Speer was a Hitler confidant whose technical genius was credited with keeping Nazi factories humming (through incessant planning and forced labor) throughout World War II. A government architect (organizing “Rallies’) and considered the closest version of Adolf Hitler’s “friend.”
He was one of 24 war criminals tried in Nuremburg who admitted his guilt. Speer spent 20 years in Spandau prison. His sentence was perhaps lightened by his passive omission to not being fully aware of Hitler’s mass executions of the Jews.
Viewing a recording of his trial where he plead, “I did not fully know what I should have fully known.” The ABC interviewer referred to a quote from Speer’s earlier writings saying: “You have said the guilt can never be forgiven, or shouldn’t be. Do you still feel that way?”
The look of pathos on Speer’s face was wrenching as he responded, “I served a sentence of 20 years, and I could say, ‘I’m a free man, my conscience has been cleared by serving the whole time as punishment.’ But I can’t get rid of it.
This new book is part of my atoning, of clearing my conscience.’” The interviewer pressed the point. “You really don’t think you’ll be able to clear it totally?” Speer shook his head. “I don’t think it will be possible.” Speer’s writings apparently were filled with contrition and warning not to commit moral sins! He sought after a clear conscience to no avail! [Hughes]
Believers are the only people on earth who have immediate access to a cleansed conscience.