The author of Hebrews has been comparing the temporary nature of the law, the priesthood, and their sacrifices. God gave these as a part of the old covenant established at Sinai. But they were merely a shadow of the reality that was to come. Christ is the mediator of a new covenant. He is also the High Priest and atoning sacrifice of this new covenant. In the tenth chapter of Hebrews, he continues this discussion. Here he looks at the once and for all nature of Christ’s sacrifice for us.
Only a Shadow
The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves.Hebrews 10:1a NIV
A shadow is cast when an object passes in front of a light. The shadow is not the reality of that object. But it does point to the actual thing that it is connected to. And it can help us to see, or learn, some details about the associated object.
In calling the law a shadow of the realities, the author claims that the law was never the reality that has come with Christ. But it was pointing to that reality. The law prepared us for Christ and the work that he has done. And once it has done that, it has accomplished its purpose.
While the author speaks here about the law as a whole, he is primarily concerned with the sacrifices it mandates. Especially the sacrifice of atonement. That sacrifice looked forward to Jesus’ work on the cross. What we find in Leviticus 16 is a shadow of Colossians 2:13-15.
The Law Never Makes Perfect
For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. Otherwise, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins. It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.Hebrews 10:1b-4 NIV
When I think of the Old Testament law, I generally focus on all of the 613 commands that it contains. These include what we now call the dietary laws, the moral laws, and the sacrificial laws. But the author of Hebrews is focused on the sacrificial part of the law. In particular, the sin offerings.
The only sacrifice repeated on an annual basis is the sacrifice of atonement. This sacrifice was described in detail in Leviticus 16 and was made on the tenth day of the seventh month. This was a three-part observation. First, a sacrifice was made to atone for the sins of the high priest. Then a sacrifice is made that atoned for the sin of the nation. And finally, the sins of the people are symbolically placed on a scapegoat who was released into the wild.
Unable to Perfect
Because of the annual necessity of the atoning sacrifice, it is clear that no one was perfected by it. Because, if they were, there would be no need to offer it, year after year repeatedly. But, despite the sacrifice, the people were not changed and continued to need to offer sacrifices. So, if the sacrifice of atonement did not perfect anyone, why was it offered?
This passage starts by saying that the law was a shadow of the reality that was to come. So I believe it is fair to say that the atoning sacrifice, rather than forgiving sin, was a look ahead at the reality to come. To the atoning sacrifice that Jesus made for us. A sacrifice that was sufficient to offer forgiveness and perfection.
It is tempting here to think of perfection as having a moral quality to it. To being sinless. But I do not believe that is what is intended here. Perfection also has the connotation of completeness, of being what something was fully intended to be, a finished product. The Old Testament sacrifice of atonement could never bring us to the place that God wanted us to be. But Jesus’ sacrifice could.
An Annual Reminder
These annual sacrifices could never take away our sin. Instead, the author says, they were an annual reminder of our sin. Each year, on the day of atonement, when the sacrifices were made, the people were reminded that they had fallen short of God’s expectations for them. The sacrifice reminded them of their guilt without actually removing it.
When Christ Came into the World
Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said:Hebrews 10:5-7 NIV
“Sacrifice and offering you did not desire,
but a body you prepared for me;
with burnt offerings and sin offerings
you were not pleased.
Then I said, ‘Here I am—it is written about me in the scroll—
I have come to do your will, my God.’”
This quotation comes from Psalm 40:6-8. And, if you look it up in most of our translations, you will find that what the author quotes here is not exactly what is in Psalms. But that seems, at least in part, to be due to his use of the Septeguant and its variant readings. And some of that variation may be to support the argument he is making here. But regardless of the cause of the differences, the author of Hebrews was an inspired author writing under the influence of the Holy Spirit.
This psalm was written by David and would seem to be about him. Yet they are also words that the author of Hebrews puts into Jesus’ mouth. And, as attributed to Jesus, they reflect the insufficiency of the annual sacrifices to forgive sin. The author will expand on this quotation in the following few verses.
Replacing the Covenant
First he said, “Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them”—though they were offered in accordance with the law. Then he said, “Here I am, I have come to do your will.” He sets aside the first to establish the second. And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.Hebrews 10:8-10 NIV
Sacrifices and Offerings
The law was very explicit concerning the variety of sacrifices and offerings to be made. So it seems strange to hear God saying, through his inspired word, that he neither desired them nor was pleased with them. So, if he did not want them, why did he mandate them as a part of the law?
The key to answering this is what came earlier in this chapter. These sacrifices could not remove our sin and perfect us. Instead, they were an annual reminder of our sin. And also, they were a shadow of the reality of what was to come. These sacrifices prepared us for the coming of the Son, who would be able to do what the law looked forward to.
Coming to Do God’s Will
In contrast to the sacrifices of the law that God was not pleased with, we have Jesus coming to do God’s will. This seems to also reflect on Jesus’ prayer in the garden, where he submitted his will to the Father. Jesus was that reality that the law pointed toward. And he accomplished what the law was powerless to do.
Made Holy Through the Sacrifice of Jesus
By Jesus’ submission to the will of God and his going to the cross as a sacrifice for sin, we who have trusted in him have been made holy. What the sacrifices of the law were unable to do, Jesus did. The sacrifices of the law are only a reminder of our sin. The sacrifice of Jesus was the cure for our sin.
A Sacrifice that Makes Perfect
Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.Hebrews 10:11-14 NIV
These four verses paint a contrast between the priests of the old covenant and Jesus, our high priest of the new covenant. Every day the old priests made sacrifices that could not cleanse the people from their sins. But Jesus made a single sacrifice that was good for all time. And he no longer needs to serve at the altar. Instead, he has sat down at God’s right hand. The place of honor and authority.
The author then shifts from Jesus’ priestly role to a royal one. Jesus rules over his kingdom. And he is awaiting the time at the end where he will pass judgment on his enemies. Using them as a footstool was a position of dominance for the victor. And humiliation for the conquered.
Made Perfect and Being Made Holy
Jesus’ sacrifice of himself is sufficient to do what the sacrifices of the law never could (Heb. 7:19). It has made us perfect forever. Hebrews 5:9 and 7:28 express that Jesus was made perfect in his obedience. And as we enter into Christ, we also enter into his perfection. In contrast to having been made perfect, we are being made holy. This expresses an ongoing operation. A continual process of growth and development as a believer. Walking ever nearer to our Lord
A New Covenant
The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First he says:Hebrews 10:15-18 NIV
“This is the covenant I will make with them
after that time, says the Lord.
I will put my laws in their hearts,
and I will write them on their minds.”
Then he adds:
“Their sins and lawless acts
I will remember no more.”
And where these have been forgiven, sacrifice for sin is no longer necessary.
The author of Hebrews goes back to Jeremiah 31:33-34 to reinforce what he has just said about Jesus’ sacrifice having made perfect those being made holy. God’s covenant is written on our hearts now rather than on stone. It is a part of who we are. And our sinful life is a part of our past. While God does not forget what we were, he does not hold it to our account. Jesus’ one-time sacrifice for us was sufficient to cover our past, present, and future sins.
And, because of that, there is no further need for a sacrifice for our sin. So we can have confidence to come into the presence of God.
- Hebrews: An Introduction
- Hebrews: The Supremacy of Christ (1:1-4)
- Hebrews: Superior to the Angels (1:5-14)
- Hebrews: A Warning to Pay Attention (2:1-4)
- Hebrews: We See Jesus, Crowned with Glory (2:5-9)
- Hebrews: Made Perfect Through Suffering (2:10-13)
- Hebrews: Jesus Is Fully Human in Every Way (2:14-18)
- Hebrews: Jesus Is Greater Than Moses (3:1-6)
- Hebrews: Failure to Enter God’s Rest (3:7-19)
- Hebrews: Enter God’s Rest (4:1-11)
- Hebrews: the Active Word of God (4:12-13)
- Hebrews: Our Great High Priest (4:14-16)
- Hebrews: Obedience Learned Through Suffering (5:1-10)
- Hebrews: Move Beyond Elementary Teachings (5:11-6:3)
- Hebrews: A Most Explicit Warning (6:4-12)
- Hebrews: An Anchor of Hope for the Soul (6:13-20)
- Hebrews: The Priesthood of Melchizedek (7:1-10)
- Hebrews: A New Priesthood (7:11-28)
- Hebrews: We Do Have Such a High Priest (8:1-6)
- Hebrews: A New Covenant (8:7-13)
- Hebrews: Worship in the Tabernacle (9:1-10)
- Hebrews: The Blood of the New Covenant (9:11-15)
- Hebrews: Entering the Heavenly Sanctuary (9:16-28)
- Hebrews: One Sacrifice for All Time (10:1-18)
- Hebrews: Enter the Most Holy Place (10:19-39)
- Hebrews: The Role Call of Faith (11:1-31)