“Since the law has only a shadow of the good things to come, and not the reality itself of those things, it can never perfect the worshipers by the same sacrifices they continually offer year after year. Otherwise, wouldn’t they have stopped being offered, since the worshipers, purified once and for all, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? But in the sacrifices there is a reminder of sins year after year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
For the last several weeks we have been talking through the author of Hebrews’ argument that the new covenant Jesus made between us and God by His sacrificial death is greater than the old covenant God made between Him and Israel and which was rooted in the Law of Moses. The author has offered one look after another into the old covenant’s various points of weakness and shown how the new covenant resolves them. Here in chapter 10, as he is drawing near the end of this line of argument, he starts out with a statement that is perhaps the most direct he’s been so far. It’s hard to fathom how much a shock this would have been to his original audience. Let’s talk about it.
We’ve talk about the sacrificial system. We’ve talked about the Law. We’ve talked about the ways all of that shaped the hearts and minds and culture of the people of Israel. All of these things formed their identity. Without them, Jews in the first century really didn’t know who they were. As a case in point, when the temple was destroyed by Rome in AD 70 an historical period of roughly 1500 years came to a sudden and violent halt. That one event marks the transition from ancient to modern Judaism. We can perhaps understand something of what this was like except that while our nation has been around for almost 250 years, the religious and cultural impact of the Law had been setting the parameters for the people of Israel for something like six times that long.
This was all particularly true for the average, non-Christian Jew in the first century. It was also true, though, for the Jews who followed Jesus as Lord. Yes, they had technically embraced the new covenant at the expense of the old, but in practice, breaking with a tradition that stretched back so long as this one did was no small task. There’s a reason Paul was constantly battling back against the arguments and efforts of the Judaizers. There’s a reason Jesus had such explosive confrontations with the religious elite of the Jews. There’s a reason the author of Hebrews spent so much of his letter explaining why the new covenant is superior to the old.
Just because they wrote and said all of these things, though, didn’t make them any easier to hear. How would you like to be told everything you’ve ever thought you knew to be true isn’t really? What would you feel like to learn all of the things you were sure were taking you all the way to the goal you were seeking only ever got you halfway there? To say this would all be a shock to your system is probably putting it far too mildly. Imagine, then, even after everything we’ve been talking about, what the impact of just these verses would have had on the author’s original audience.
He starts hitting hard right out of the gate. “The law has only a shadow of the good things to come, and not the reality itself of those things.” As we have said again and again in this journey, the Law was never the full and real thing. It was never the actual pathway to get to God. The best it ever did was to offer a copy of the original. It gave us a recreation of the throne room of God, never the actual thing. It was a good and important game of make believe that prepared us in many ways for when the real thing arrived, but it was not the real thing in and of itself. Sticking with the Law in the face of the arrival of the new covenant would be like a little girl pretending to be a bride with her favorite teddy bear as the groom, but then growing up and sticking with the teddy bear with an audience of dollies instead of a real wedding celebration. Playing pretend can be good practice for reality, but at some point, we have to stop the pretending in order to embrace what really is.
This shocking statement, however, is not made simply for its own impact. It is assumed in order to make another point about the insufficiency of the Law to accomplish what everyone was using it to try to do. We know this because the whole line starts with the word “since.” In other words, the make-believe nature of the Law is just a given here. Given that, “it can never perfect the worshipers by the same sacrifices they continually offer year after year.”
The hits just keep on coming. Not only does the Law and the old covenant undergirding it not give us access to the real things to which we thought it gave us access, but it can’t even do the basic thing we had counted on its ability to do. Another point to which we have returned several times on this journey is the fact that the Law only ever gave us a covering for sin and not a real release from it. The sacrifices worshipers brought to the Lord year after year never accomplished the full extent of what the people were hoping they would do. They kept God off their back (and that only because of His abundant and gracious love), but that was about it. They never truly cleansed them from their sins so they could stand with boldness and confidence before the Lord.
But how could the author make such a claim as this? On what grounds is he basing such a criticism? Surely those are questions his original audience had boiling up in their hearts and minds when they first heard such charges as these. His point is rooted in careful observation and a bit of logic. Let’s think with him for a moment. If those sacrifices had accomplished what they were purported to do, then why were they offered again and again, year after year? It’s a simple question, but a devastating one as well. If the sacrifices prescribed by the Law served to actually cleanse us from our sins, then why did we have to keep offering them? Well, because we kept on sinning. More sin means more sacrifices. But isn’t that exactly the point? As the author writes, “in the sacrifices there is a reminder of sins year after year.”
We needed something the Law could never deliver. Indeed, it was not designed to deliver it. We needed something that could completely cleanse us from our sin. We needed a sacrifice that made us so thoroughly clean that we didn’t need to offer anymore sacrifices. We needed a way for our relationship with God to experience no more interruptions or separations. Yet sin remained. The sacrifices we had to keep offering again and again each year made sure we didn’t forget that depressing fact. Sin had a stronghold on our hearts and just wouldn’t let go. The slaughter of a thousand bulls and goats couldn’t dislodge it from its place. “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.”
The reason for that should be easy to understand. Human sin requires a human sacrifice to truly be covered. Humans committed the sin, so only humans could atone for it. Animal sacrifices of any sort or number were not human sacrifices no matter how you swung it. By God’s grace, they took our place. We didn’t face the just penalty of our sins in the moment. But they couldn’t do what we needed them to do. We needed something more. We needed someone more.
Thanks be to God we have that someone now. We have Jesus. His death was the sacrifice we needed because He was human and because it has the power to make us completely clean from our sins if we are willing to trust in Him. If you are willing to put your life in His hands and embrace the new covenant God made through His blood, you can have the relationship with God you were always designed to experience. If you haven’t done that before, I hope that today you will.