Scripture readings: Isa. 7:10-14; Ps. 118:1-2, 19-29; Heb. 10:4-10; John 12:12-16 Sermon by Ted Johnston (from Hebrews 10:1-25) (drawing on commentary by Warren Wiersbe in The Bible Expository Commentary and F.F. Bruce in The Epistle to the Hebrews)
Jesus’ Better Sacrifice
Here is a video from GCI Media that would make a good call to worship for this Palm/Passion Sunday service. On Vimeo at https://vimeo.com/257629062.
Today is the final Sunday in Lent. It’s also Palm Sunday (also called Passion Sunday), which begins Holy Week, culminating next Sunday with Easter.
On Palm/Passion Sunday, Jesus entered Jerusalem for the last time, prepared to give his life as the sacrifice for our sins. Let’s reflect on that stunning truth by returning to the book of Hebrews where, last week, we saw that Jesus’ high priesthood under the new covenant is superior to that of the Aaronic priesthood under the old covenant. Now, in Hebrews 10:1-25, we’ll note three ways Jesus’ sacrifice under the new covenant is better than the sacrifices offered under the old covenant.
1. Jesus’ sacrifice takes away sin (Heb. 10:1-10)
By nature, we humans are sinners, and our actions prove it. What is the solution? Not old covenant sacrifices, which only served to expose sin, pointing beyond themselves to the only solution: Jesus’ perfect and final sacrifice. In chapter 10, the author of Hebrews describes that better sacrifice in three ways: its need, its provision and its effectiveness.
a. The need for Jesus’ sacrifice (Heb. 10:1-4)
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. 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. (Heb. 10:1–4)
The sacrifices offered under the old covenant, which were ordained by God, were in force for hundreds of years. How then can they be seen as inferior? The answer is that the nature of the old covenant sacrifices made them inferior. The Law of Moses was but “a shadow of the good things that are coming” and not the reality. The sacrificial system of the Law of Moses (the old covenant) was a type or picture of the sacrifice Jesus would make for us. This meant that the old covenant system was temporary—it did not accomplish anything permanent, nor was it designed to. The repetition of the sacrifices day after day, and the Day of Atonement year after year, pointed out the entire system’s inherent weakness.
Also, animal sacrifices could never completely deal with human guilt. Though God promised forgiveness to believing worshipers under the old covenant, this was only a judicial covering of sin and not the removal of sin’s guilt from people’s hearts. Had that occurred, these worshipers would not have needed to offer additional sacrifices, which served only as reminders of sin. True, the sacrifices made on the Day of Atonement covered the nation’s sins; but those sins were not “cleansed” and the people did not receive from God an inward witness of forgiveness and acceptance. There thus remained a desperate need for a better sacrifice than that provided by the blood of bulls and of goats, which could not take away sins. Only the better sacrifice of Jesus does that.
b. The provision of Jesus’ sacrifice (Heb. 10:5-9)
Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said: “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.’” 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. (Heb. 10:5–9)
It was God, not any human, who provided the needed sacrifice. The quotation here is from the Septuagint translation of Ps. 40:6–8, which the author of Hebrews 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 the animal sacrifices and offering to the meal and drink offerings. All these typify Jesus’ sacrifice, revealing some aspect of his work for our salvation.
The phrase “a body you prepared for me” (verse 5) is how the Septuagint paraphrases the original Hebrew of Ps. 40:6, which in the NIV reads “My ears you have opened.” In both translations, the idea is of God’s servant (Jesus in this case) willingly offering himself in sacrifice to God. “Opened ears” suggest a readiness to hear and obey God’s will. God gave his Son a human body that he might fulfill the Father’s will on earth.
Twice in this paragraph (verses 6 and 8), God’s displeasure with the old covenant sacrifices is stated. This does not mean these sacrifices were wrong, or that sincere worshipers received no benefit. It means that God took no delight in sacrifices as such, apart from the obedient hearts of the worshipers. No amount of sacrifice can substitute for an obedient heart!
Jesus came to do the Father’s will (verse 7). His will is the new covenant, which replaced the old. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus “set aside” the first covenant to establish the second. The original Jewish Christian readers of this letter would have understood the import of this shocking statement—why go back to a covenant that has been taken away?
c. The effectiveness of Jesus’ sacrifice (Heb. 10:10)
And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. (Heb. 10:10)
Believers have been “made holy” (“sanctified”—meaning “set apart”) by the offering of Jesus’ body given as a sacrifice once and for all. No old covenant sacrifice did that. Old covenant worshipers had to repeatedly be purified (made “holy”) from their ceremonial defilement. But new covenant “saints” are “set apart” finally and completely—not because of their merit or works, but because of Jesus’ perfect sacrifice.
2. Jesus’ sacrifice need not be repeated (Heb. 10:11–18)
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.
The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First he says: “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. (Heb. 10:11–18)
Once again, the writer of Hebrews contrasts the old covenant high priest with Jesus, the Great High Priest of the new covenant. The fact that Jesus sat down after ascending to the Father, is proof that his work was completed. In contrast, the ministry of old covenant priests was never done and never different: they offered the same sacrifices day after day after day. This 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 and for all with his one, perfect sacrifice.
The phrase “sat down” refers us to Ps. 110:1: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.” Jesus is now in the place of exaltation and victory. When he returns, he will overcome every enemy and usher in the fullness of the Father’s kingdom. Those who trust him now need not fear, for they have been “made perfect forever” (Heb. 10:14). Indeed, believers experience “fullness in Christ” (Col. 2:10). By virtue of our union with Jesus, we stand perfect before God.
How do we know that we have this standing before God? One important way is through the Spirit’s witness in Scripture (the written word of God) to God’s work on our behalf (Heb. 10:15–18). In Heb. 10:16–17, the writer quotes Jer. 31:33–34. Old covenant worshipers could not say that they “no longer… felt guilty for their sins” (Heb. 10:2). But new covenant believers can say that—because of what Jesus has done, their sins and iniquities are remembered no more. Thus there is “no longer any sacrifice for sin” (Heb. 10:18). Why? Because none is needed.
As we begin to trust Jesus, we experience the truth that all our sins have been forgiven in and through him. This spiritual awakening, which is a gift to us from the Spirit, removes from us all sense of guilt. By faith we know that the matter of sin has been completely settled forever, and we are set free to live accordingly. In this way we are “being made holy” (Heb. 10:14b).
3. Jesus’ sacrifice opens the way to God (Heb. 10:19–25)
No old covenant worshiper would have been bold enough to try to enter the most holy place in the tabernacle or temple. Even the high priest entered there only once each year. The thick curtain that separated the holy place from the most holy place served as a barrier between people and God. Only the death of Christ could tear that curtain down (Mark 15:38), opening the way for people into the heavenly sanctuary where God dwells. With these truths in mind, the author of Hebrews now offers a gracious invitation:
Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Heb. 10:19–25)
Our confidence to enter the most holy place (i.e. God’s presence) rests on the finished work of Jesus, our Great High Priest. On the Day of Atonement, the high priest of the old covenant could not enter the most holy place in the temple 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 (in the sense of recent or fresh) and is not a part of the old covenant that is “obsolete and aging” and “soon” (from the perspective of when Hebrews was written, which was apparently before the temple’s destruction in AD 70) to “disappear” (Heb. 8:13). The new way of the new covenant 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! He is the new covenant.
We come to God freely and confidently through Jesus, our high priest over the “house of God” (the church, Heb. 3:6). When his flesh was torn on the cross, and his life sacrificed, God tore the curtain in the temple, symbolizing the new and living way being opened for all who put their trust in Jesus. We express that trust by responding in three ways, which the author of Hebrews outlines as an invitation with three parts:
a. Let us draw near (Heb. 10:22)
Under the old covenant the priests could only approach God’s presence in the temple after various ritual washings. Under the new covenant we all have open access to God through Jesus because of the inward washing that his life, death, resurrection and ascension have provided for humankind. In Jesus, “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 invited to “draw near”—to take full advantage of the access that is ours in Christ. So let us not draw back! Let us not be timid! Let us not be unbelieving! Rather, let us be bold, courageous and full of faith!
b. Let us hold unswervingly (Heb. 10:23)
The original Jewish Christian readers of Hebrews were being tempted to forsake their profession of Jesus to return to the old covenant worship of their Jewish families and friends. The exhortation to them to hold on is not about holding on to their salvation (which is secure in Christ), but to “hold unswervingly to the hope” that 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 “faithful,” and so can be unreservedly trusted. When believers have their hope fixed on Christ, and rely on the faithfulness of God, then they will not waver. Brothers and sisters, let us not look back—let us look ahead in hope, trusting Christ!
c. Let us meet together (Heb. 10:24–25)
Our confidence as believers to enter God’s presence in Jesus is expressed not only personally but corporately. It’s likely that these Jewish Christians were 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 Christian assembly. The author of Hebrews declares that 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 like ours. The emphasis here in Hebrews is not on what a believer gets from church attendance, but rather on what they contribute in consideration of others. 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” is used in the New Testament is in 2 Thess. 2:1, where it is translated “gathered” and deals with Jesus’ return at the end of the age.
Dear friends, despite the obstacles we face as Christians, we have great reason to be confident—to press forward with faith and perseverance. Why? Because the Lord we serve is our superior sacrifice—his sacrifice on our behalf is sufficient for all our need. Our perfect, mighty 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 or let down! Press on dear ones!
May this coming Holy Week be for us all a vivid reminder of who Jesus is and of the perfect sacrifice that he has given on our behalf. Amen.