Meditations in Hebrews 10: 41. The Inadequate Law
Heb 10:1 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.
A Repetitive Argument: The writer to the Hebrews comes like a demolition ball used by a demolition contractor, crashing against the wall again and again until eventually the old building falls down in a pile of rubble. He started back in chapter 7: “The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless (for the law made nothing perfect), and a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God.” (7:18,19) The law was “weak and useless” and “made nothing perfect” and hence God introduced a “better hope”. Then in chapter 8, speaking about the Jeremiah prophecy he declared, “By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear.” (8:13) The old covenant, laid out in the Law of Moses, was obsolete and aging and about to disappear. Then in chapter 9 he said, “the gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper. They are only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings–external regulations applying until the time of the new order.” (9:9,10) The reason he had previously said the Law was “weak and useless” was that it was not able “to clear the conscience of the worshipper” and they were mere external regulations.
The Argument Repeated: So here he now comes again: “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming–not the realities themselves.” (v.1a) The Law simply gave an impression of what was to come. The worship regulations pointed towards what Christ would do on the Cross. The rules for society pointed towards the society that would be Holy Spirit indwelt and motivated by love for God and Jesus. Thus, he concludes, “For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship.” (v.1b)
The Failure of the Old: That is the sad truth – and God knew that – that people would sin, offer a sacrifice, and then sin again and so have to offer another sacrifice and so on. It was there to highlight the problem of Sin that we have and keep on having. So, he adds, “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.” (v.2) If keeping the sacrificial regulations cleansed once for all and removed any and all guilty feelings, then they would have stopped making offerings (because they no longer needed to) but they didn’t. He adds, “But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” (v.3,4) The Day of Atonement rolled round year by year and every time the High Priest went in and offered sacrifices for his own sin and the sin of the people. They knew they were not perfect.
And then Christ came: Having got to that point, he turns back to Christ by quoting from and applying Psa 40:6-8 to Christ. It is worth reading the whole of that part of that psalm: “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but my ears you have pierced; burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require. Then I said, “Here I am, I have come– it is written about me in the scroll. I desire to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.” Now instead of the reference to be a slave to God – having a pierced ear – the Septuagint (that Greek version we referred to earlier in the book) has “but a body you have prepared for me,” which he quotes from. Similarly there is an alternative possibility to “it is written about me in the scroll,” as “with the scroll written for me,” which would be the scroll of God’s will or instructions written for him.
Closer Scrutiny: Let’s take the quote our writer uses and consider it bit by bit, first verses 5-7:
“Sacrifice and offering you did not desire” – as he’ll say in a moment the Law required them but God was looking for heart changes not mere religious ritual.
“but a body you prepared for me” – Christ’s human body to be used as a sacrifice was the only one that could satisfy justice.
“with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased” – the repetitive Hebrew style reiterating that ritual cannot replace reality.
“Then I said, `Here I am–it is written about me in the scroll– I have come to do your will, O God.’” – Christ’s coming was to do God’s will and achieve what animal sacrifices would not achieve. This was clearly David moving in prophetic mode.
Confirming Explanation: Then he does his own explanation: “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). Then he said, “Here I am, I have come to do your will.” He sets aside the first to establish the second. And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” (v.8-10) So twice more the demolition ball crashes in. Sacrifices and offerings were in the Law but God wanted a corresponding heart response, not merely a religious ritual. Christ came to present his body so that his sacrifice would replace all those previous sacrifices so that, as a result, a new holy people could be formed, a people won by love, a people who respond in love. Love, not religious ritual; that was the big difference between the outworkings of the two covenants.