Let us remember together that the writer was addressing a Jewish audience who had grown up in an ancient faith. Their scriptures covered a nearly two thousand year span. Their laws were ancient, and their ways venerated, for they had come from the mouth of God.
To us today, the idea of animal sacrifice may seem primitive and barbaric, brutal and bloodthirsty. It is hard to imagine what it must have taken for a priest to butcher lamb after lamb, bulls, goats, even doves, day in and day out, hour by hour, a long line of worshippers waiting in the hot sun with their restless and bleating or lowing animals, tugging on their tethers, terrified by the smell of blood and offal, and the shrieks of dying animals.
Yet it is against this very backdrop that the writer spoke, for he knew this was what the Law required.
Animal Blood Cannot Take Away Sin
Since the law has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered year after year, make perfect those who approach. Otherwise, would they not have ceased being offered, since the worshipers, cleansed once for all, would no longer have any consciousness of sin? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sin year after year.
For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.Hebrews 10:1-4 (NRSV)
There would not be a shadow without there being the real thing to cast the shadow in the first place. And there must be light shed on the real thing to provide contrast for the shadow. The real thing is the eternal sanctuary in heaven, and the light is what you and I have been studying, God’s word illuminated by the Holy Spirit.
I remember the first time I really thought about the phrase “washed in the blood.” To be awash in something is to be completely covered, immersed and saturated. But to be washed carries the sense of being cleansed, and the last thing that comes to mind as a cleansing agent is blood. But that is exactly what the Levitical laws conveyed—in some way, somehow, blood cleanses.
Nevertheless, an animal, no matter how innocent and blemish-free, could never be enough of a substitute for a person. Animal sacrifice could only be a temporary, outward symbol of cleansing and payment for sin.
Jesus Can Take Away Sin
Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said,
“Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired,Hebrews 10:5-7 (NRSV
but a body you have prepared for me;
in burnt offerings and sin offerings
you have taken no pleasure.
Then I said, ‘See, God, I have come to do your will, O God’
(in the scroll of the book it is written of me).”
To make his point, the writer had once again turned to the Psalms, quoting from Psalm 40. Other passages in the Hebrew scriptures spoke of a similar sentiment, for example from the prophet Isaiah,
What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?Isaiah 1:11 (NRSV)
says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.
But this prophetic passage, depicting Messiah and the Father in conversation, revealed why.
And it had to have been unsettling to the writer’s audience, because all these offerings and sacrifices had been commanded by God and carefully explicated according to type of sin and reason for sacrifice, whether to thank God, to expiate for wrongdoing, to cover sins done in ignorance, to celebrate a festival or the birth of a child, to offer the yearly tithe. The list was long! So, the writer hastened to explain.
When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), then he added, “See, I have come to do your will.”
He abolishes the first in order to establish the second.
And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.Hebrews 10:8-10 (NRSV)
Animal Sacrifice as Portrayal of Substitution
For the animal sacrifice to be acceptable, to have any meaning, the animal itself had to be perfect.
When anyone offers a sacrifice of well-being to the Lord, in fulfillment of a vow or as a freewill offering, from the herd or from the flock, to be acceptable it must be perfect; there shall be no blemish in it.Leviticus 22:21 (NRSV)
Sixty-five times, the scriptures commanded a sacrifice of any kind must first be without blemish.
It seems animal sacrifice was a portrayal, time and again, of what sin does. Sin takes what is lovely, what is good and sweet and pure, what is innocent, first to corrupt and then to destroy it. Sin is violent, sin is lethal. Sin extinguishes life, innocent or otherwise.
When a person placed their hands on that trembling animal’s head, and confessed to God the sins they wished to die with that animal, that was a transference. The animal died—symbolically—on behalf of that person, as though the malignance of sin had passed through that person’s hands and into the dumb, unknowing creature.
But it could not last.
The creature would die on behalf of those sins, but that person would live to sin again. And so the awful cycle would continue, the corruption of sin would lead to death again and again and again and again . . .
Jesus Provides Genuine Substitution
And then Jesus presented the body God had prepared for Him and allowed Himself to be sacrificed for the sins of the world. Because Jesus was the perfect sacrifice, given in complete and willing submission, He replaced all the previous sacrifices.
He is our substitute.
In Greek, the word for substitute is ὑπέρ| huper, meaning on behalf of or in another’s place. Huper is the chief Greek term for expressing the principle of substitution, and substitution is one of the important salvation concepts in the Bible.
We are rescued from the corruption of sin, from death itself, because God the Father sent the Lord Jesus Christ to die huper, on behalf of you and me, to die in our place. Jesus stood in our place as the sinner, and bore the full force of the cleansing wrath of God for our sins. As a result, we are able to stand before God as Christ having been given Jesus’ righteousness
- For Christ’s substitution to be acceptable, He, too had to be perfect, without blemish, which is to say, without sin, without its presence anywhere within Him.
- By His sinlessness Jesus was qualified to be the perfect sacrifice for our sins, the perfect substitute to receive and survive the cleansing wrath over sin.
- Jesus fulfilled the law of God perfectly, securing for you and me the necessary merit to receive the blessings of God’s covenant.
Surely he has borne our infirmitiesIsaiah 53:4-6 (NRSV)
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.