Jesus: the superior sacrifice (Hebrews 10)
This post provides an exegesis of Hebrews chapter 10. It draws on multiple sources, including commentary from Warren Wiersbe (The Bible Expository Commentary), F.F. Bruce (The Epistle to the Hebrews), and D.A. Carson (New Bible Commentary).
|"Lamb of God" by Zubaran (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)|
Prior to the tenth chapter of Hebrews, the writer emphasized that Jesus’ priesthood belongs to a better order, functioning on the basis of a better covenant, in a better sanctuary. But all these depend on what is now addressed in chapter 10, namely Jesus’ superior sacrifice. The writer addesses this important topic by describing three benefits that demonstrate why Jesus’ sacrifice under the new covenant is superior to the sacrifices offered under the old covenant (the Law of Moses). In the midst of this explanation, the writer offers a powerful warning, and a hope-filled exhortation concerning living by faith in Jesus, who is the perfect and final sacrifice for sin.
Benefit 1: Jesus’ sacrifice takes away sin (10:1–10)
By nature we are prone to sin and our actions prove it. What is the solution? Not the old covenant sacrifices—they only exposed sin—and in so doing pointed forward to the only solution, namely the better sacrifice of Jesus. The writer of Hebrews now describes this superior sacrifice according to its need, provision and effectiveness.
- The need for the better sacrifice (vv. 1–4)
1 The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. 2 If it could, 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. 3 But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, 4 because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
The old covenant sacrifices were ordained by God and in force for hundreds of years. How can they be seen as inferior? The answer is that the very nature of the old covenant sacrifices made them inferior. The Law of Moses was only “a shadow of the good things that are coming” and not the reality. The sacrificial system of the Law was a type or picture of the sacrifice Jesus would make for us. This meant that the old covenant system was temporary—it could accomplish nothing permanent. The very repetition of the sacrifices day after day, and the Day of Atonement year after year, pointed out the entire system’s inherent weakness.
Moreover, animal sacrifices could never completely deal with human guilt. God did promise forgiveness to believing worshipers (Lev. 4:20, 26, 31, 35), but this was a judicial covering of sin and not the removal of guilt from people’s hearts. People lacked an inward witness of full and final forgiveness. They could not claim, “I have no more consciousness of sins.” If those worshipers had been “cleansed once for all [from the guilt of sin]” they would never again have had to offer another sacrifice.
So the annual Day of Atonement did not accomplish “remission of sin” but only “reminder of sin.” The annual repetition of the ceremony was evidence that the previous year’s sacrifices had not done the job. True, the nation’s sins were covered; but they were not cleansed. Nor did the people have God’s inward witness of forgiveness and acceptance. Yes, there was a desperate need for a better sacrifice because the blood of bulls and of goats could not take away sins. It could cover sin and postpone judgment; but it could never effect a once-and-for-all redemption. Only the better sacrifice of the Son of God could do that.
- The provision of the better sacrifice (vv. 5–9)
5 Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said: "Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; 6 with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased. 7 Then I said, 'Here I am-- it is written about me in the scroll-- I have come to do your will, O God.'" 8 First he said, "Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them" (although the law required them to be made). 9 Then he said, "Here I am, I have come to do your will." He sets aside the first to establish the second.
It was God who provided the sacrifice and not man. The quotation is from the Septuagint translation of Ps. 40:6–8 which he applies to Jesus in his incarnation (“when Christ came into the world”). The quotation makes it clear that Jesus is himself the fulfillment of the old covenant sacrifices. The word sacrifice refers to any of the animal sacrifices. Offering covers the meal and drink offerings. The burnt offering and sin offering are mentioned (Heb. 10:5, 8). The trespass offering would be covered in the word sacrifice (Heb. 10:5). Each of these offerings typified the sacrifice of Christ and revealed some aspect of his work of salvation.
The phrase, “a body you prepared for me” (Heb. 10:5), is how the Septuagint paraphrases the original Hebrew of Ps. 40:6 which reads in the NIV: “My ears you have pierced [or ‘opened’].” In either translation, the idea is of God’s servant (Jesus in this case) willingly offering himself in sacrifice to God. “Opened ears” meant a readiness to hear and obey the will of God (see Isa. 50:4–6). God gave his Son a prepared human body that he might serve God and fulfill his will on earth. Jesus often referred to this truth (John 4:34; 5:30; 6:38; 17:4). “Opened ears” indicates a body ready for service.
Twice in this paragraph, the writer stated that God was not “pleased” with the old covenant sacrifices (Heb. 10:6, 8). This does not suggest that these sacrifices were wrong, or that sincere worshipers received no benefit from obeying God’s Law. It only means that God had no delight in sacrifices as such, apart from the obedient hearts of the worshipers. No amount of sacrifices could substitute for an obedient heart.
Jesus came to do the Father’s will (Heb. 10:7). This will is the new covenant that has replaced the old covenant. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus has "set aside" the first covenant to establish the second. The original Jewish Christian readers of this epistle would have understood the implication of this rather shocking statement—why go back to a covenant that has been taken away? Why go back to inferior sacrifices?
- The effectiveness of the better sacrifice (v. 10)
10 And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
Believers have been “made holy” (sanctified—meaning set apart) by the offering of Jesus Christ’s body given once and for all. No old covenant sacrifice could do that. An old covenant worshiper had to be purified (made holy) from ceremonial defilement repeatedly. But a new covenant saint (set-apart one) is set apart both finally and completely—not because of their own merit and works, but because of Jesus’ once-and-for-all sacrifice.
Benefit 2: Jesus’ sacrifice need not be repeated (10:11–18)
11 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. 12 But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. 13 Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool, 14 because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy. 15 The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First he says: 16 "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." 17 Then he adds: "Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more." 18 And where these have been forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin.
Here again, the writer contrasts the old covenant high priest with that of Jesus Christ, the Great High Priest of the new covenant. The fact that Jesus sat down after he ascended to the Father is proof that his work was completed (Heb. 1:3, 13; 8:1). The ministry of the priests in the tabernacle and temple was never done and never different: they offered the same sacrifices day after day. This constant repetition was proof that their sacrifices did not actually take away sins. What tens of thousands of animal sacrifices could not accomplish, Jesus accomplished forever with his one sacrifice.
The phrase sat down refers to Ps. 110:1: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.” Christ is in the 'place' of exaltation and victory. When he returns, he will overcome every enemy and establish the fullness of his righteous kingdom. Those who trust him need not fear, for they have been “made perfect forever” (Heb. 10:14). Indeed, believers have been given “fullness in Christ” (Col. 2:10). Through our incorporation into Jesus (the God-man)—into his death, resurrection and ascension, we stand perfect before God.
How do we know personally that we have this perfect standing before God? One important way is through the Holy Spirit’s witness in Scripture to God’s work on our behalf (Heb. 10:15–18). In Heb. 10:16–17 the writer quotes Jer. 31:33–34, part of a passage also quoted in Heb. 8:7–12. The old covenant worshiper could not say that he “no longer…felt guilty for their sins” (Heb. 10:2). But the new covenant believer can say that his sins and iniquities are remembered no more. There is “no longer any sacrifice for sin” (Heb. 10:18) because none is needed—our sins are completely forgiven by the finished work of Jesus on our behalf. The guilt of our sin is thus forever removed. When we trust Christ, we come to experience that truth, an awakening that removes from us all sense of guilt. By faith we know that the matter of sin is completely settled forever and we are free to live accordingly. In this way we are "being made holy" (Heb. 10:14b).
Benefit 3: Jesus’ sacrifice opens the way to God (10:19–39)
No old covenant worshiper would have been bold enough to try to enter the most holy place (holy of holies) in the tabernacle. Even the high priest entered only once a year. The thick curtain that separated the holy place from the most holy place was a barrier between people and God. Only the death of Christ could tear that curtain (Mark 15:38), opening the way into the heavenly sanctuary where God dwells.
- A gracious invitation (vv. 19–25)
19 Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. 25 Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another-- and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
Our confidence to enter the most holy place rests on the finished work of Jesus, our High Priest. On the Day of Atonement, the high priest of Israel could not enter the most holy place unless he had the blood of the sacrifice (Heb. 9:7). But our entrance into God’s presence is not because of an animal’s blood, but because of Jesus’ shed blood. This open way into God’s presence is new (recent, fresh) and not a part of the old covenant that is “obsolete and aging” and “soon” (from the perspective of that day) to “disappear” (Heb. 8:13). This new way is also said to be living because Jesus “always lives to intercede” for us (Heb. 7:25).
Jesus himself is the new and living way! We come to God confidently through him, our High [‘great’] Priest over the “house of God” (the church, see Heb. 3:6). When his flesh was torn on the cross, and his life sacrificed, God tore the curtain in the temple. This symbolized the new and living way now opened for all who believe. We then express our confidence in Jesus by responding in three ways, which the writer frames here as an invitation in three parts:
1. Let us draw near (v. 22). Under the old covenant the priests could only approach God’s presence in the tabernacle after various ritual washings. Under the new covenant we all have open access to God through Christ because of the inward washing that his life, death, resurrection and ascension have provided for humankind. In Christ “our hearts have been sprinkled” and our “bodies washed with pure water.” As a result we have full fellowship with God—and so we are to ‘draw near’—take full advantage of the access that is our in Christ. Don’t draw back! Don’t be timid! Don’t fear persecution! Don’t be unbelieving! Rather be bold, courageous and full of faith.
2. Let us hold unswervingly (v. 23). The Jewish Christian readers were being tempted to forsake their profession of Jesus Christ by going back to the old covenant worship. The exhortation here is not about holding on to salvation (which is secure for us in Christ), but to “hold unswervingly to the hope” they “profess” [confess]. They can do so with confidence and tenacity because the one who has given them all these promises of help in time of need is indeed “faithful.” When a believer has his hope fixed on Christ, and relies on the faithfulness of God, then he will not waver. Instead of looking back, he will look ahead in hope to the coming of the Lord.
3. Let us meet together (vv. 24–25). Confidence to enter God’s presence in Jesus would be expressed not only personally but corporately. These Jewish Christians were perhaps still meeting in the Synagogue with fellow Jews on the Sabbath and then in Christian assembly on Sunday. But now they were being tempted to pull back from the Christian assembly. They must not do so—they must continue to meet together.
And so it is with us today, our fellowship with God must never become selfish. We are called into fellowship with other believers in local churches. It is important to note that the emphasis here is not on what a believer gets from church, but rather on what they contribute in consideration of others in the church. Faithfulness in church attendance encourages our brothers and sisters in Christ and spurs them “on to love and good deeds.” One of the strong motives for this faithfulness is the coming (“the Day”) of Jesus Christ. The only other place the word translated “meeting together” (Heb. 10:25) is used in the New Testament is in 2 Thess. 2:1, where it is translated “gathered” and deals with the return of Christ.
- A solemn exhortation (vv. 26–31)
26 If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, 27 but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. 28 Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. 29 How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? 30 For we know him who said, "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," and again, "The Lord will judge his people." 31 It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
This strong exhortation is the fourth of five in Hebrews and needs to be seen in the context of the others: The believer who begins to drift from the Word (Heb. 2:1–4), will start to doubt the Word (Heb. 3:7–4:13), and soon become dull toward the Word and then lazy in their spiritual life (Heb. 5:11–6:20). This will, no doubt, result in despising the Word, which is the theme of this fourth exhortation.
The evidence of this “despising” is sinning deliberately (and the meaning of ‘deliberate’ here has to do with sinning with a ‘high hand’—see Num. 15:30). The tense of the verb is “keep on sinning.” In view is not a particular act of sin, but continuous, willful apostasy that reveals an internal attitude of rebellion. Under the old covenant, there were no sacrifices for such willful sins (Num. 15:27–31). This explains why David prayed as he did in Psalm 51.
How does an arrogant, hostile, rebellious attitude toward God affect a believer’s relationship with God? It is as though he tramples Jesus Christ underfoot, treating as “unholy” (common) the precious blood of Jesus that saved him. He thus insults the Holy Spirit (Heb. 10:29). Doing so is the opposite of the behavior encouraged in Heb. 10:19–25. Instead of having a bold profession of faith, hope, and love, a believer who lives in deliberate rebellion brings disgrace to the name of Christ and his church.
What can this kind of a reklessly rebellious Christian expect from God? He can expect severe discipline (the theme of Hebrews chapter 12). There is no need to minimize words such as “judgment and raging fire” in v. 27, or the severe punishment spoken of in v. 29. In the history of Israel, hardly anybody saved out of Egypt by the blood of the lamb entered the promised inheritance. Nearly all of them died in the wilderness. “There is a sin that leads to death” (1 John 5:16). Some of the Corinthian believers were disciplined and their lives taken because of their presumptuous, continous life of sin (1 Cor. 11:30). Though God does not always take the life of a willfully rebellious believer, he does discipline them otherwise. Indeed, “the Lord will judge his people” (Heb. 10:30, quoting Deut. 32:35). “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31).
The major theme of Hebrews is “God has spoken—now, how are you responding to his Word?” When the nation of Israel refused to believe and obey his Word, God chastened them. Paul used this fact to warn the Corinthians against presumptuous sins (1 Cor. 10:1–12). Note that the examples given in this passage in Hebrews involve people who died because of their willful sins. Hebrews 12 gives even greater insight into this aspect of God’s dealings with his children.
It should be emphasized that this discipline as the result of willful, prolonged rebellion is not to be equated with a loss of salvation. However, we do need to note that there are consequences for sin—even when committed by a believer who is experiencing the forgiveness they have in Christ. For example, God forgave David’s sins, but David suffered the sad consequences for years afterward (2Sam. 12:7–15). David, as a believer, had “despised the word of the Lord” (2Sam. 12:9). In love (but, nevertheless with severity) God disciplined him.
What should a believer do who has drifted away into spiritual doubt and dullness, and is deliberately despising God’s Word? He should turn to God for mercy and forgiveness. There is no other sacrifice for sin, but, thank God, the sacrifice Christ made is indeed sufficient for all our sins. It is a fearful thing to fall into the Lord’s hands for discipline, but it is a wonderful thing to fall into his hands for cleansing and restoration. David said, “Let me fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is very great” (1Chron. 21:13).
- An encouraging confirmation (vv. 32–39)
32 Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering. 33 Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. 34 You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. 35 So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. 36 You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. 37 For in just a very little while, "He who is coming will come and will not delay. 38 But my righteous one will live by faith. And if he shrinks back, I will not be pleased with him." 39 But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved.
Lest the exhortation of vv. 26-31 be misunderstood, the writer follows with words of encouragement and confirmation in vv. 32-39. He knew them to be true Christians and did not expect them to despise God’s Word and experience severe discipline from God (note the shifting of pronouns from the personal “we” in v. 26 and “you” in v. 32 to the impersonal “a man” and “those’ in vv. 29, 39). The Jewish Christian readers had been willing to suffer reproach and persecution, even to the confiscation of property and imprisonment. They had demonstrated great confidence and hope; but now they were in danger of casting that away and returning to their former old covenant religion. He wants them to be emboldened to do what is right.
The key to their victory would be in exercising faith and patience. It is here that the writer introduced the “text” around which Hebrews is written: “My righteous one will live by faith” (Heb. 10:38). The quotation is from Hab. 2:4, and it is also used by Paul in Rom. 1:17 and Gal. 3:11. Romans emphasizes “the righteous,” Galatians deals with “will live,” and Hebrews centers on “by faith.” We are not just saved from our sin by faith; we also must live by that faith. This is the theme unpacked in Heb. 11–13.
The believer who lives by faith will “go on to maturity” (Heb. 6:1). But those who live by sight “shrink back and are destroyed” (Heb. 10:39). What does “destroyed” mean in this context? The Greek word is used about 20 times in the New Testament and is translated by different words: “perish” (Acts 8:20), “destruction” (Rom. 9:22), and “waste” (Matt. 26:8). Though the word can be used to refer to eternal destruction, it need not always. It seems that the issue addressed here in Heb. 10:39 is not eternal loss of salvation—therefore “waste” is perhaps the better translation. A believer who goes back into the old ways is not walking by faith and is thus wasting his or her life. To be “saved” in this context means living a life of faith for and with Jesus—laying hold of the salvation we have in Christ (1 Tim. 6:19). In faith we lose our lives for the sake of Christ—but in doing so we save those lives (Matt. 16:25–27). To turn our backs on Jesus and walk away is to ‘wander in the wilderness’ of waste and destruction.
Despite the obstacles that we face as Christians, we can be confident! We can press forward with faith and perseverance. Why? Because the Lord we serve is our superior sacrifice—the one that is sufficient for all our need. Jesus, our faithful High Priest will see us through—he will guide us and take us on to perfection. So don’t cave to the temptation to turn back! Press on! Amen.