FORGIVEN & FORGOTTEN
Have you ever wished for a return to the “good old days”? One of the signs of the encroachment of middle age is a growing nostalgia. You begin to remember how things used to be. I can remember when we attended Paula’s 40th high school reunion. It was a time of seeing old friends and of remembering old events. The problem is that memory tends to be selective. If we were suddenly to be transported back to those “good old days,” we might find that they were not so good after all.
The Epistle to the Hebrews is
written to Jewish Christians who were beginning to think in terms of the “good
old days.” They found themselves being
persecuted for their faith and they began to remember how things were before
they heard the message of the gospel.
There was none of this controversy about a Galilean
carpenter-turned-rabbi. Life was so
simple then. You went to the temple and
you offered your sacrifice and you got on with the business of life. Just like their forefathers had longed for
the beauties of
THE INABILITY OF THE OLD COVENANT SACRIFICES
For the Law, since it has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things, can never, by the same sacrifices which they offer continually year by year, make perfect those who draw near.
Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, because the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have had consciousness of sins?
But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins year by year.
For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. (Hebrews 10:1-4).
Plato’s Republic depicts an allegory in which people find themselves living within a cave, having been chained in such a position that they cannot turn their heads to look out at the opening of the cave, but instead, can only see the shadows that are cast upon the back wall. Living their whole lives in shadow, they have little inkling of the reality of that which is casting such shadows.
In his allegory, a man is set free and brought out of the cave and into the light. He looks in amazement at those actual things that gave form to the shadows. There is the sun. And here is a tree, a real tree and not merely the shadow of a tree. And there is a bird. And here are people of warmth and flesh and blood. Our problem is that we are still in the cave and all we see is the shadow.
The writer to the Hebrews uses similar terminology. He speaks of how the Old Testament prophets saw reality only in terms of shadow. They had a promise of what God was going to do in the future, but they did not know how it all fit together. They had the sacrifices and they had the temple and they had the priesthood and they looked forward to a coming Messiah, but they did not know how it was all to work together.
And then Jesus came. They heard the gospel, the good news that a
Galilean Rabbi from
But then hard times came. Persecutions began to arise against those who were followers of Jesus. In the midst of these difficult times, these Jewish believers began to face a temptation to leave Jesus and to go back to their Old Testament way of doing things.
This is why the book of Hebrews was written. It is to tell us not to depart from the faith because Jesus is better. He is better than...
• The angels.
• Moses or Joshua
• He is a better high priest.
• He has offered a better sacrifice.
• He has established a better covenant.
It is not that the Old Covenant was bad. After all, it was given by God. But it was designed by its very nature to be temporary. In the language of Plato, it was a SHADOW.
1. Those Sacrifices were only a Shadow: For the Law, since it has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things (10:1).
There is nothing wrong with a shadow. But a shadow lacks substance. You can look at a shadow and you can get some idea of what is the reality behind the shadow, but the shadow is no substitute for the reality.
If I invite you over to eat a Sunday lunch, you will be sorely disappointed if you sit down at the table and see only a shadow of a meal and not the actual meal itself. A shadow doesn’t fill your hunger and it does not assuage your thirst.
When I hit the age of thirty, my dear wife threw me a surprise birthday party. She has a real flair for the dramatic and when it came time to open the presents, I opened a little box and inside was a small model of a gold Pontiac Firebird. As I turned the model over, a key was taped beneath and suddenly a real Pontiac Firebird was being driven up the driveway. A friend leaned over my shoulder and whispered, “It sure takes the edge off being thirty.”
But imagine if, in the days to come, I never got into the real car and drove it, but only contented myself with the model. You would have come to the conclusion that something was seriously wrong with my perception of reality and you would have been right because a model is not to be more highly valued than that after which it is modeled and a shadow is no substitute for substance.
A shadow is not a bad thing. It can be a good thing. But a shadow has no independent substance. It is only the reflection of reality, not the reality itself. The Law was like that. The best that it could be was a reflection of that which was to come after. Because of this, it could not offer lasting forgiveness.
This is simple to prove. If the sacrifices of the Law could bring permanent forgiveness, then they would have ended long ago. A sacrifice would have been given and it would have been good enough and another would never need to be established. A worshiper would make a one-time offering and it would last for all eternity. But that wasn’t the case.
2. Those Sacrifices could never make one Perfect: For the Law, since it has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things, can never by the same sacrifices year by year, which they offer continually, make perfect those who draw near (10:1).
If those sacrifices had been able to make one perfect, it could have done so and then ceased. The very fact that sacrifices continued year after year after year was in itself a sign of the inability of those sacrifices.
• What the Law would have done had it been able: Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, because the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have had consciousness of sins? (10:2).
The sacrifices were endless. A sacrifice was offered every day. Day after day, week after week, year after year. Another year. And another dead lamb, its hot blood staining the altar and the sacrificial knife. Year by year and lamb by lamb. A never-ended parade. Each lamb that was ever slain bore mute and bloody testimony that the blood of lambs can do nothing with regard to cleansing sins.
• What the Law did do because it was not able: But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins year by year (10:3).
The fact that there was a never-ending need for a sacrifice was a reminder that the issue of sin was never fully resolved. It was only delayed. Every time you went back to offer another sacrifice, it served as still another reminder.
Reminders are a good thing, but sometimes a reminder can get you down, especially when it is a reminder of your own inadequacy. James likens the law to a mirror. You look into it and it shows you the dirt on your face, but it doesn’t clean it up.
The law was a reminder that sin remained. The only permanent thing the law ever did was to impress upon one how temporary it was.
3. Those Sacrifices cannot take away sins: For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins (10:4).
In the final analysis, the killing of a sheep was unable to have any effect upon sin. A lamb cannot die for human sin. If this is the case, then why did God require animal sacrifices? Why would God give something that did not work? Why did God give the law? There are three reasons.
• First, the law was given as a shadow of good things to come (10:1). Each and every ceremony of the tabernacle pointed directly to the person of Jesus.
• Secondly, the law served as a reminder that God hates sin. The law showed man what sin is and how it stands in contrast to the holiness of God. Thus the law serves to diagnose the sinful condition of man and show his need for a Savior.
• Thirdly, the law presents to us the righteousness of God. To you want to know what God is like with respect to His holy character? Look at the law.
THE ABILITY OF CHRIST’S SACRIFICIAL BODY
The temporal quality of the law is not exclusively a New Testament teaching. It is rooted in the Old Testament. We see this in a quotation from Psalm 40:6-8.
1. God Prepared a Body: Therefore, when He comes into the world, He says, “Sacrifice and offering You have not desired, but a body You have prepared for me; 6 in whole burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin You have taken no pleasure.” (Hebrews 10:5-6).
I am reminded of a sermon title that I once heard — “God in a Bod.” It did not sound very reverent. Indeed, it sounded rather profane. But then again, the very concept is a bit profane. If the title makes you feel a bit uncomfortable, it should. It should because God left the comfort of heaven to do that which was completely and utterly profane.
The very idea of the holy and majestic God of the cosmos coming to take upon Himself the form of a baby with soiled diapers and then growing up to walk our dirty streets and live in our dirty world and to die upon our dirty cross. Drab. Irreverent. Simply profane. God in a human body. Unthinkable. But that is exactly what the Bible teaches.
• God became man to communicate with men. That is how the book of Hebrews begins when it tells us that God spoke in times past in many ways and at many times, but has now spoken to us in His Son.
• God became man to identify with men. We have a great high priest who understands every temptation we face because He faced them, too.
• God became man to die in place of men. God cannot die. For God to die would be the end of the universe and everything. Therefore One who was God took one flesh and was born as a baby so that He could die in our place.
2. God took Pleasure in a Body
• He took no pleasure in sacrifices: In whole burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin Thou hast taken no pleasure (10:6).
The concept of God taking no pleasure in sacrifices and in offerings is a common one in the Old Testament.
Isaiah 1:11. “What are your multiplied sacrifices to Me?” Says the LORD. “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams, And the fat of fed cattle. And I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls, lambs, or goats.”
6:20. For what purpose does frankincense come to Me from
Hosea 6:6. For I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice, And in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.
Amos 5:21‑22. I hate, I reject your festivals, nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies. 22 Even though you offer up to Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them; and I will not even look at the peace offerings of your fatlings.
The point of these passages is not that God hated sacrifices, but that He does not want ONLY sacrifices and that He does not want them FOREVER. They were designed, by their very nature, to be temporary and to be anticipatory of that which would come later.
• He took pleasure in the one who came to do His will: “Then I said, 'Behold, I have come (In the roll of the book it is written of Me) To do Thy will, O God'” (10:7).
The writer is still quoting from the Psalms. It is a psalm about fulfilling the will of God. What is it that God wants? Not sacrifices and offerings. God finds no pleasure in the death of animals. What does God want? He wants Jesus. He prepared for Him a body. Jesus came to do the will of God. It is by this will that we are saved.
The Son came to do the will of the Father and to accomplish that which would ultimately give pleasure to the Father. Do you remember what took place at the baptism of Jesus? A voice was heard from heaven: “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well‑pleased” (Matthew 3:17).
• The pleasure of God’s will was accomplished in Christ: After saying above, "Sacrifices and offerings and whole burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin Thou hast not desired, nor hast Thou taken pleasure in them" (which are offered according to the Law), 9 then He said, "Behold, I have come to do Thy will." He takes away the first in order to establish the second. 10 By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. (10:8-10).
The writer of the book carefully cites the prophecy from Psalm 40 and then he goes back through it to pick out the part he wants to underscore. The portion he wants to emphasize is that the coming of the Messiah as a replacement to the Old Testament sacrifices was a part of the will of God. Now that Christ has come, the Old Testament sacrifices are no longer needed.
3. This Body was to Supersede the Law: He takes away the first in order to establish the second (Hebrews 10:9).
We are no longer under the Old Covenant. It has been taken away. Indeed, it was designed to be taken away. It contained a promise that it would be taken away. The reason it would be taken away is so that something new could be established in its place.
This is important. The Old Covenant does not co-exist alongside the New Covenant. If the New Covenant has come, then the Old Covenant has passed away and has been replaced by that New Covenant.
4. This Body results in our Sanctification: By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. (10:10).
The law was about making you holy. It was all about setting you apart from the other nations of the world and making you into someone special who was to have a special role in God’s kingdom. It required a never-ending supply of animal sacrifices. But that has all been replaced by the offering of the body of Christ.
THE COMPLETED NATURE OF CHRIST’S SACRIFICE
And every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins; 12 but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God, 13 waiting from that time onward until His enemies be made a footstool for His feet. 14 For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. (Hebrews 10:11-14).
There was an incredible monotony to the Old Testament when it came to the sacrificial system. A sacrifice would be offered every morning. Another sacrifice would be offered every evening. Each year there would be an atonement made for the sins of the nation. The following year it had to be repeated. Year after year would be the same. Every year, another atonement. Day after day. Year after year. Time after time. Thus it continued until the coming of the better priest.
1. The Sacrifice of Christ was a Single Sacrifice: He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time... (10:12).
The sacrifices of the Old Testament were many. There was a sacrifice for sin. There was an offering for dedication. There was a sin offering and a guilt offering and a trespass offering. These sacrifices were in constant need of repetition.
By contrast, the sacrifice of Jesus was a single sacrifice. Because it was a single sacrifice, it needs never to be repeated. This is one of the issues that I have with the Roman Catholic Church. That church teaches that Jesus is offered again and again in the elements of the Eucharist; that the Lord’s Supper involves an “unbloody sacrifice.” But the Bible teaches that the sacrifice of Jesus is one sacrifice for all time.
2. The Sacrifice of Christ was a Completed Sacrifice: He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God (10:12).
We have already noted the significance of Jesus sitting down at the right hand of God. This epistle opened with the statement that Jesus sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high (Hebrews 1:3). The reason He could sit down is because His sacrificial work was completed.
One thing the priest in the temple never did was to sit down. There were no chairs in the temple. There were lampstands and altars and tables, but no chairs. The priests of the temple were always standing. There was always another sacrifice to be made, another offering to officiate. Jesus is the priest who sat down. He sat down because His work was completed. The place of His sitting down was at a place of greatest glory. He sat down at the right hand of God.
3. The Sacrifice of Christ was a Victorious Sacrifice: Waiting from that time onward until His enemies be made a footstool for His feet (10:13).
A cross is not a symbol of victory. To the contrary, it is a symbol of death. To hang on a cross is to suffer defeat and agonizing death. Yet we see that Jesus was able to turn defeat into victory. He was able to turn that which symbolized death and to make of it the entrance into life.
The cross was a great victory, but the totality of the victory is not yet realized. We still await the time when the enemies of Christ might realize their final defeat. This promise is pictured in graphic terms. There is coming a day when His enemies shall be made a footstool for His feet.
The sign of complete conquest in the ancient world was when the enemies of a conquering king were brought before him and made to prostrate themselves upon the ground. The victorious sovereign would then place his foot upon the neck of the vanquished. It was a picture of complete victory. Jesus won the victory at His death and burial and resurrection, but the final aspect of that victory has not yet been completed. It still awaits its final culmination.
A COMPLETED COVENANT
And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us; for after saying, 16 “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws upon their heart, and on their mind I will write them,” He then says, 17 “And their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.” 18 Now where there is forgiveness of these things, there is no longer any offering for sin. (Hebrews 10:15-18).
We are now given another testimony to the truth of the completed sacrifice of Christ. It is the testimony of the Holy Spirit. This does not refer to some tingling feeling. It refers to the testimony of the Spirit as given in the pages of the Old Testament. Do you want to hear what the Spirit says? Go and read the Scriptures. The passage that is cited here is from the pages of Jeremiah. The author to the Hebrews has already cited it once. Back in Hebrews 8, he quoted from Jeremiah about how God would put His laws into His people’s mind, and write them in their hearts (Hebrews 8:10). He now quotes that same passage again. It is a passage about the New Covenant.
1. The New Covenant has an Internal Application: I will put my laws upon their heart, and on their mind I will write them (10:16).
The promise of the New Covenant was that God would do a work on mankind from the inside out. The Old Covenant was a work that was to go from the outside in. It was written on tablets of stone. It told you how you ought to live and how you ought to love. It dealt with all of life.
The New Covenant also deals with all of life, but it is much more than a mere series of rules. It involves that which God’s Holy Spirit is doing inside the lives of His people. It contains a promise of a spiritual presence within those who are God’s people.
2. The New Covenant means that Sins have been Forgotten: He then says, 17 “And their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more” (10:16-17).
It is one thing to forgive an infraction, it is another thing to forget that infraction. We have a promise of both forgiveness and forgetfulness. God says, “It will be as though I have forgotten your sin altogether.” It is not that God is having a case of Alzheimer’s. Nor is He a computer program that erases information from a hard drive. But He promises to act toward us as though He had indeed forgotten our sin. Someone has said, “God throws our sins into the depths of the sea and then He plants a sign that says, ‘No fishing.’”
3. The New Covenant means we need no further Offering for Sin: Now where there is forgiveness of these things, there is no longer any offering for sin (10:18).
You don’t need to make an offering for sin when that sin has been forgiven. You don’t need to try to get someone to forgive you if that forgiveness has already been granted. Those who were trying to approach God on the basis of their Old Testament sacrifices were accomplishing nothing of value.
Have you been attempting various schemes to approach God? Have you been trying in vain to be good enough or holy enough or spiritual enough to come into His presence? There is good news here for you. It is news that brings a sigh of relief. Forgiveness has already been given. God accepts you, not the way you are, but the way Christ is. When you come to Him in faith, He accepts you with the same acceptance with which He accepts His only begotten Son.