READ : Hebrews 10:1-4, 10-13
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. 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. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. . . . we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
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. Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool, because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.
Hebrews 10:1-4, 10-13
If you were to make a list of indispensables, of things you absolutely could not do without, what would be at the top?
One of the foundational truths of the Christian faith is set forth in Hebrews 9:22: “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” I wonder whether you would have said this is indispensable to salvation? Is this the prescription you would have written for the problem of human sin? A common-sense principle in medicine says that prescription depends upon diagnosis. Two hundred years ago, it was usual for doctors to treat an illness by bleeding the patient, which was thought to restore the body’s proper balance of “humours,” or fluids. Such treatment seems incredible to us today, but it didn’t then. Given medicine’s understanding of the nature of disease, it was actually quite rational, even though it often ended up killing the patient. The problem, you see, was not in the prescription but the diagnosis.
This same principle holds true in spiritual matters: Prescription depends upon diagnosis. You can’t decide whether a biblical precept is good or not until you know how accurate is the diagnosis that lies behind it. It’s because we believe the Bible to be God’s very word that we accept both its diagnosis of the basic human problem and its prescription for how it is to be solved. That is why we accept the fact that the first indispensable which everyone needs is not love, or kindness to one’s neighbor, or even faith in God, but rather this grim-sounding act of the shedding of blood. Before we need any of those other things, what we need in order to be saved is to have atonement made through a sacrificial death in payment for sin. As the Bible states: “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.”
THE PROBLEM OF SIN
The Bible is really a book about sin and its consequences. The primary story the Bible tells is the story of salvation. Theologian James Packer has said that after the first two chapters the real subject of every other chapter in the Bible is what God does about sin. Genesis 1 and 2 serve as a sort of general introduction to God’s creation of the world, but from the moment sin first appears in Genesis 3, the rest of the book is devoted to a description of the devastation sin has wreaked on human nature, human relationships, and the human environment, and to the account of the dramatic things God had to do in order to reverse sin’s damage and put things right again.
Just as the Bible is a book about salvation, so Christianity is a faith about salvation. Its main subject is how to be saved: our need for salvation, where to find it, what we should do once we have found it. Somebody once asked G. K. Chesterton (a giant Christian in more ways than one) why he had become a Christian. His answer was short and to the point: “To get rid of my sins!” That’s the only correct response to that question, the only reason for becoming a Christian, because sin is the problem for which the gospel was designed to be the answer.
WHAT CAN PAY?
What we are told here in Hebrews is that the solution to the problem of sin requires a payment. Sin has to be dealt with in a specific way. It can’t be ignored until it goes away because it won’t. It can’t be excused or covered up or dismissed as unimportant because it isn’t. God is holy, and a holy God reacts to sin like a flame reacts to gasoline: the two simply cannot be brought into contact. So God cannot live in the presence of sin, nor can sin remain in his presence, and therefore sinners can’t be forgiven and accepted by God unless all their sins have been removed from them.
This is the truth that lies behind the prescription of Hebrews 9:22: “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” The word here translated “forgiveness” literally means “putting away.” Sin can only be put away after it has been punished. You know as well as I do that if you have a debt the only thing that can really satisfy it is payment. For example, if you’re late with a payment on your car or house, you don’t really need a friendly reminder in the mail or a phone call from your banker; you don’t even need advice on how you should feel or what you should do. What you need is money! It’s the same with sin. What we need is not to be told how to feel or what to do about sin. We need someone or something to pay for it. The writer to the Hebrews also tells us here that the only payment which is acceptable for sin is death. Sin can’t be forgiven unless there is a death offered “the shedding of blood” means to put someone to death.
This fact lay behind the whole Old Testament system of religion. When God instituted the elaborate series of animal sacrifices which were the basis of Israel’s worship, he was teaching his people that death is demanded in order for sin to be forgiven. From the very beginning the religion of Israel was a religion of blood. Every morning and evening, first at the tabernacle and later at Solomon’s temple, the people approached God by offering up animals in sacrifice. The temple in Jerusalem was more like a bloody slaughterhouse than a quiet cathedral. Its very stones ran red with the blood of sacrificial animals. And throughout the centuries every one of those offerings, every ritual sprinkling, every application of blood to the altar and to the great Ark of the Covenant with its mercy seat in the Holy of Holies – every single sacrificial victim, in fact, shouted out this truth: “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.”
WHO CAN PAY?
But Hebrews also points us to the only sacrifice that is truly adequate for sin. Whose blood was it that had to be shed? Certainly not ours. It’s true that for us to die would satisfy the righteous demands of the law, but that would also mean our destruction. But the wonder of the gospel is its revelation that despite our sin, God still loves us. Because of this he has provided a substitute, someone to die in our place.
And that brings us to the other great lesson of Old Testament worship. The payment for sin must be death, but God has offered a substitute to die that death. For centuries the substitute was an animal, a sheep or a goat or a bull, always clean, perfect and unblemished. But these sacrifices were really only object lessons, substitutes for the real Substitute, for no mere animal’s life could ever have enough merit to atone for wrong-doing.
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. 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. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. . . .
Hebrews 10:1-4, niv
In the laws of the Old Testament, God was pointing to a better way, a more adequate sacrifice, offered by the perfect substitute Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. All of the ritual, and even the temple itself, was only a sort of shadow or copy of the heavenly realities where the actual drama of redemption took place, when Jesus offered his own body on the cross, once for all, for the sin of the world.
All those Old Testament sacrifices were bloody transactions charging sins to Christ’s account, to be paid for in full at Golgotha on Good Friday afternoon. So, adds the writer to the Hebrews once more,
. . . we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all . . . because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy (vv. 10-14).
What can we say in response to this? Let me suggest two things which are reasonable to draw as conclusions. If it is true that, as Hebrews says, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins,” and if Christ has already shed his blood for those sins and therefore offered a perfect payment for them, how foolish, and how futile, to try to find forgiveness for your sins in any other way! It can’t be done. Only the death of a flawless substitute can pay sin’s penalty. But Christ, the only one who is truly qualified, has willingly offered this very sacrifice.
What more could you want? Why then do you feel the need to base your relationship with God on something else – on your own righteousness, on your religion, on your good works, or whatever – instead of trusting in Christ’s righteousness and his shed blood? The way to forgiveness of sins and peace with God has been opened for us by the sacrifice which Jesus offered once for all on the cross. We can find forgiveness nowhere else. We need no other assurance of the love of God and of our own salvation. We have in Jesus a great high priest who has offered himself once for all and now sits exalted at God’s right hand. The work of salvation is finished! It’s all been done for us, and done perfectly. Why in the world would anybody want to add anything to Christ’s perfect work, other than simple trust and heartfelt gratitude?
But secondly, how important it is to do exactly that! Each must respond to Christ’s offering for sin by believing in him, by trusting in his blood for the forgiveness of our sins, and by offering up our lives as a living sacrifice in gratitude to him. Maybe you recall that in accordance with the command of God, on Passover night each family in Israel slaughtered a yearling lamb and brushed the lamb’s blood on the door frames of their houses, so that they would not die in the approaching judgment. Like everything else in the Old Testament this too was a signpost pointing to Christ. The blood of the Lamb must be applied, individually, to each house, each family, each life.
Have you done that for yourself? Have you personally appropriated the death of Jesus Christ by faith? Have you confessed to God that you are a sinner, a fit object of his just condemnation? Have you renounced every claim to self-righteousness, and turned away from every attempt to make yourself right with God or worthy of his love? Have you simply cast yourself on God’s mercy in Christ, trusting only in his one sacrifice on the cross for your forgiveness?
If you haven’t done that, I really have only one question for you: How do you expect to find forgiveness for your sins? For this is one indispensable: “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.”