Hebrews is one of the deepest and most spiritually enriching books in the entire Bible. I greatly enjoy preaching from it and studying it in private for the benefit of my own understanding of Scripture. Recently my studies have taken me to the first twenty-five verses of chapter 10, where we see the divinely inspired author show another reason why Christ’s New Testament is superior to the Old Testament Law of Moses. That reason would be the insufficiency of animal sacrifices to provide forgiveness of sins.
He starts by pointing out that the Law of Moses “has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities” (10:1, ESV). This was something he had touched on earlier in the book when he classified the gifts and sacrifices offered by the Old Testament Levitical priests as “a copy and shadow of the heavenly things” (8:4-5). They were not designed to “perfect the conscience of the worshiper,” but rather were part of the Old Testament rituals which were designed to be “symbolic” and “imposed until the time of reformation” which would come with the arrival of the New Testament (9:8-10). They were meant to be “copies of the heavenly things” (9:23), symbolic foreshadowing of the sacrifice on Calvary which would in fact forgive man’s sins once for all time.
Being thus designed as temporary foreshadowing of the better things to come in the New Testament, the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament which were “continually offered every year” would never “make perfect” the worshipers “who draw near” (10:1-2). When compared with Hebrews 9:9, we see that the concept of “perfect” refers to the consciences of those who had worshiped God via these animal sacrifices. The fact that they found it necessary to continually make these animal sacrifices showed that they still had a “consciousness of sins” and were thus not actually “cleansed” (10:2). Their consciences were not cleansed or purified. They still bore their guilt.
This was due to the fact that the animal sacrifices which they had to have continually offered on an annual basis brought them nothing but “a reminder of sins every year” (10:3). All of the sacrifices required by the Law of Moses — sacrifices for every day, sacrifices required every month, the annual sacrifice on the Day of Atonement — all of them constantly reminded the Israelites of the guilt they bore for their sin and their constant need for cleansing. For these reasons, the Holy Spirit inspired the Hebrew writer to inform his first-century Jewish brethren who were being tempted to abandon Christianity and return to Judaism: “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (10:4). He was pleading with them to recognize the wonderful gift they had in Christ and not throw it away for something that could give them no spiritual benefit.
To make this case, he then quotes from Psalm 40:6-8 when he writes, “Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, ‘Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body have you prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, “Behold, I have come to do your will, O God, as it is written of me in the scroll of the book”’” (10:5-7). The Messianic prophecy found in this Old Testament psalm shows the wonderful mindset Christ possessed when he came to this earth. Burnt offerings and animal sacrifices did not meet God’s standards, and so God provided the only things which could: himself in the form of “a body have you prepared for me” … his own Son in human form (cf. John 1:1, 14).
Citing again the part of the Old Testament psalm which says “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” and clarifying that they were offered in accordance with the Law of Moses (10:8; cf. Ps. 40:6), the author then quotes Psalm 40:8 again: “Behold, I have come to do your will” (10:9a). God wanted the first century Hebrew Christians who originally read this to understand that while the Old Testament animal sacrifices were in one sense acceptable because they were in accordance with God’s laws given to Moses, they were not meant to be permanent. They could not truly atone for sin in a permanent fashion. Rather, they were a type or foreshadowing of the real atonement to come when Jesus died on the cross. Knowing that the Levitical sacrifices were not adequate to fix our sin problem, Jesus came to do God’s will in the fullest, most complete sense possible. He gave himself on Calvary.
By doing so, Christ fulfilled the Law of Moses (Matt. 5:17). And like any fulfilled contract or obligation, the Mosaic law ceased to be in effect and was done away with. Thus, the Hebrew author writes that Jesus “does away with the first in order to establish the second” (10:9b). As he had already shown earlier in Hebrews, the Old Testament of Moses was replaced with the New Testament of Christ (8-9). By offering his body on the cross and thus removing the old covenant and replacing it with his new one, Jesus made it possible for us to be made holy for all time. This is why the author then writes, “And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (10:10). His sacrifice was both obedient to God and the perfect atonement used to forgive us.
Under Moses, the Israelite priests’ service was continual, a daily requirement in which they “offered repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins” (10:11). Christ’s sacrifice was different and much better. Hebrews describes it this way: “But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (10:12-14). Once Jesus made the all-sufficient sacrifice for sins “for all time,” he ascended into heaven and took the best seat of all at God’s right hand (cf. Mk. 16:19; Dan. 7:13-14). As prophesied in Psalm 110:1-4 and taught by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:25-28, Jesus is still sitting at the right hand of God, patiently waiting until all who oppose his work as High Priest and his reign as King of kings are defeated. He can do this because his sacrifice on Calvary has provided the solution for our sin problem for all time. His death makes it possible for all who obey the gospel to be made holy in the sight of God.
The Holy Spirit also testifies to this by inspiring Jeremiah (cf. 2 Pet. 1:20-21) to prophesy about the new covenant which would offer complete forgiveness of sins. The Hebrew writer points this out by quoting Jeremiah 31:33-34 once more after having done so previously to make a similar point earlier in the book (10:15-17; cf. 8:7-13). His point in doing so was this: “Where there is forgiveness of sins, there is no longer any offering for sin” (10:18). Thus, God’s followers no longer offer animal sacrifices. There is no longer any need for it. Jesus’ death took care of that.
Thus, the Hebrew writer now exhorts the first-century Jewish Christians to stay loyal to the Christian religion and resist the temptation to return to Judaism (10:19-22). Under the Law of Moses, the Most Holy Place in the tabernacle and temple — which signified the dwelling place of God in heaven — was off limits to all but the high priest. Yet now all can “have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus” (10:19; cf. John 14:6). The “new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh” (10:20) refers to the sanctified path to redemption and eternal life offered to us all by the offering of his body on the cross. It is a “living” way because the sacrifice on Calvary which opened this way is sufficient to solve our sin problem for all time. As the author had just pointed out, “Where there is forgiveness of (sins), there is no longer any offering for sin” (10:18). Jesus’ death has put paid to that problem for all time. He is now our high priest, the “great priest over the house of God” which is the church (10:21; cf. 1 Tim. 3:15).
Because this is true, the first century Jewish Christian — as well as all Christians everywhere for all time — can now “draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith” (10:22a). Our path to God no longer has any hindrances. We can now approach his throne and accept his hand of redemption, not because we deserve it or have earned it, but because of what Jesus has done for us on the cross. Our hearts must be “true,” that is, sincere, and “in full assurance of faith,” a heart-felt conviction and assurance which has no doubt and nothing but confident expectation of God’s grace and mercy (cf. 2 Cor. 3:4-5; Eph. 3:12; Heb. 3:6, 14; 4:16; 1 John 4:17; James 1:6-7).
Our hearts must also be “sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (10:22b). What “sprinkles” our hearts “clean” is the blood of Christ, which the author will later point out when he writes of “the sprinkled blood” of Jesus (12:24). Peter would teach that Christians are “elect” (i.e., chosen) “for sprinkling with his blood” (1 Pet. 1:1-2). It is the blood of Christ which redeems us and forgives us of our trespasses (Eph. 1:7). In like manner, the mention of “our bodies washed with pure water” is a reference to baptism in water, which “washes away our sins” (Acts 22:16; cf. 8:38-39; 10:47). It is through baptism that one comes into contact with the cleansing blood of Christ which sprinkles one’s heart clean from an evil conscience and brings redemption and forgiveness (Acts 2:38-39; 1 Pet. 3:21; Mk. 16:16).
There was a reason the Hebrew author was bringing all of this out. The persecution brought onto Jewish Christians by their fellow Jews was severe (10:32-36; 12:3-12). Confessing Christ back then was not a simple, one-time admission of faith in an air-conditioned church building surrounded by approving friends. The early church would not have understood salvation to have been achieved by simply giving a verbal affirmation of faith and then going on with one’s life, a la the false doctrine of “asking Jesus into your heart,” one of the worst wrongs ever perpetrated upon Christendom which completely ignores biblical mandates for repentance, baptism, and obedient living. No, confessing Christ meant in many cases immediate and complete ostracism, abandonment by one’s family, loss of job and property, jail time, and even death. For this reason the Hebrew writer encouraged them to “hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering” (10:23a), again guaranteeing them salvation by reminding them that “he who promised is faithful” (10:23b).
Dedicated Christianity in the midst of severe trials is difficult. One cannot do it on one’s own. Thus, the writer then tells them to “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works” by “not neglecting to meet together” (10:24-25). The early church assembled together to worship God and learn from his Word on Sundays (Acts 2:42; 1 Cor. 11:17-34; 14:26ff; Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:1-2). Yet they also met to “encourage one another” (10:25) because most if not all of them faced severe pressure to abandon Christianity. Apparently, some of them had begun to cave to this pressure, as seen by “neglecting” — literally in the Greek, abandoning or deserting (cf. Matt. 27:46; 2 Tim. 4:10) — the worship assemblies so much that it had become habitual (“as is the habit of some” – 10:25). The Hebrew author instead wanted them to continue to meet together and encourage each other, and to do so “all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (10:25), likely referring to Judgment Day (cf. 9:27-28; cf. 2 Thess. 2:1). God wanted them to continue to exhort each other to stay dedicated. He wishes the same for his followers today.