As most of my readers know, one of my favorite passages of Scripture is Hebrews 10:19-25:
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places 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, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:19-25 ESV)
One part of this passage is often difficult to interpret: “with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water”. Many commentators see a reference to baptism is this phrase, since the author talks of being washed with pure water.
However, there is another possibility.
This phrase is reminiscent of the cleansing and consecration rites of priests in the Old Testament. Consider these passages from Leviticus:
And Moses said to the congregation, “This is the thing that the LORD has commanded to be done.” And Moses brought Aaron and his sons and washed them with water. (Leviticus 8:5-6 ESV)
Then Moses took some of the anointing oil and of the blood that was on the altar and sprinkled it on Aaron and his garments, and also on his sons and his sons’ garments. So he consecrated Aaron and his garments, and his sons and his sons’ garments with him. (Leviticus 8:30 ESV)
If you read the the verses between what I quoted above, you’ll see that Moses also consecrated the altar and offered sacrifices. But these passages deal directly with the consecration (setting apart) of Aaron and his sons as priests.
Notice the difference: in the new old priesthood, the bodies are washed with water and the garments are sprinkled with blood. In the new priesthood, our hearts are sprinkled clean (probably by the blood mentioned in vs. 19), but it is still our bodies that are washed. However, in the new priesthood, our bodies are washed with “pure water”. This is a strange phrase, especially if we connect it to baptism. While some traditions have attached a cleansing power to the waters of baptism, we don’t find that attribute anywhere else in Scripture. Could there be another scriptural referent (besides baptism) for the “pure water”?
In fact, the phrase “pure water” (the Greek phrase, that is), shows up in one other passage in the Greek Bible. We find that phrase in the Greek translation of Ezekiel 36:
I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water (“pure water”) on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezekiel 36:24-27 ESV)
Notice that according to Ezekiel, God will cleanse his people with “pure water” under the new covenant. This washing with pure water is associated with removing all uncleanness, replacing a heart of stone with a heart of flesh, reception of the Spirit of God, and righteous living. So, here we come to another difference between the old covenant priests and the new covenant priests: the old covenant priests are washed and sprinkled by man, while new covenant priests are washed and sprinkled by God himself.
Remember that this passage begins in vs. 19 by reminding the readers that they have access to the “Holiest” (which is not an earth-bound, man-made sanctuary, but a “heavenly sanctuary” in the presence of God – Hebrews 9:24). This access is by a new way, which is also a living way. This now makes more sense if the author of Hebrews is talking to priests – and he is. While the old covenant priests (high priest only) entered the man-made holiest place through a man-made curtain, the new covenant priest (all of them!) enter God’s presence (an even more “holiest” place) through a different curtain (vs. 22) – that is, through the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ – who is also our High Priest (vs. 21).
Our work as new covenant priest – consecrated by God himself through the work of Jesus Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit – includes drawing near to God (vs. 22), holding fast to hope because of God’s faithfulness (vs. 23), and considering how to bring out the best in one another and acting on that consideration (vs. 24-25).