Beginning in Hebrews 4:14 the author had attempted to prove the superiority of Christ as a high priest. After building to the climax of chapter 7 where he argued that Jesus was a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek he turned to the various ways in which Jesus was a better priest than that provided by Judaism. The superiority of Jesus' ministry, the fact that he gave witness to a better covenant, and the superiority of the sacrifice of Christ were developed in Hebrews 8:1-9:28. One of the results of the superior priesthood of Jesus is access to God. Hebrews 10:1-18 brings the argument to a close, pulling together various aspects previously mentioned in the book and making the application to the lives of the readers.
One of the themes that is developed is obedience. Hebrews 5:9 had described Jesus as the source of eternal salvation for all those who obey him. Hebrews 10:1-18 will focus on the obedience of Christ and on the obedient response that is expected from those who would follow him. The development of thought is structured according to the literary pattern called chiasm. Lane ( p. 130) summarizes it as follows:
A - The inadequacy of the Law's requirements of repeated sacrifices for sins - vv. 1-4
B - The repeated sacrifices are replaced by one sacrifice of Christ vv. - 5-10.
B' - The Levitical priests are replaced by the one priest enthroned at God's right hand vv. 11-14
A' - The adequacy of the New Covenant making unnecessary repeated sacrifices vv. 15-18
This arrangement shows the relationship of the four paragraphs of Hebrews 10:1-18. The first and fourth paragraphs relate to each other around the theme of inadequacy versus adequacy. The second and third paragraphs contrast the many with the one.
At first glance the subject of verses 1-18 seems to be the same as that of chapter 9. However, the emphasis shifts to what is accomplished in the lives of Christians because of what Christ has done. One could say that chapter 9 dealt with the objective work of Christ while 10:1-18 deals with the subjective effect of that work in the lives of believers. The primary point is the cleansing of the conscience of the Christian. The sacrifices, priesthood, and covenant of the Levitical system were ineffective in cleansing from sin and creating a clear conscience. On the other hand, the sacrifice, priesthood, and covenant of Christ were effective in cleansing from sin and creating a clear conscience.
The Failure of the Old Sacrifices - Hebrews 10:1-4
The thrust of verses 1-4 is the inadequacy of the Law as demonstrated by the repeating of the sacrifices. In particular the Levitical priesthood and sacrificial system did not accomplish the basic goal of religion, that being security in one's approach to God.
The author of Hebrews uses the term shadow to describe the Law as it prescribed Israelite expectations for priesthood and sacrifice. The Greek philosopher, Plato, had used the word shadow to describe things on earth that he believed were mere copies of the heavenly and eternal realities. By the time of the New Testament many Greek-speaking religious people believed that anything earthly and material was evil. However, the author of Hebrews does not view the Old Testament priesthood and sacrificial system as evil but as indicators or promises of good things which are about to come. In fact, some translators will translate shadow as "foreshadowing." The emphasis is not on what is real and eternal versus that which is shadow and temporary. The emphasis is on past pattern that is awaiting a future (already present?) promise that will fulfill that pattern. The point of verse 1 is that the Old Testament sacrificial system cannot perfect those who come to God through it.
The ineffectiveness is plain within the system itself. The problem lies in the fact that the same sacrifices are offered continually, year after year. If they had been effective and accomplished their purpose, they would have stopped being offered. The very fact that the Old Testament sacrifices were offered on a repeated basis is the argument for their ineffectiveness according to the author of Hebrews.
A basic goal of religion is enabling a person to approach God with confidence and security. Part of the difference between the faith of the Old Testament and the pagan religions of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Canaan was the fact that God was not capricious like the gods of those surrounding nations. Only sin blocked access to the Holy God of the Bible. The Old Testament sacrificial system was designed to atone for sin and to allow access to God.
When Inter-testamental Judaism reduced the sacrificial system to a mechanistic way to approach God, Christ was sent to provide open access to God. Even within the history of Christianity the question of security in our approach to God has been the focal point of spiritual renewal. Medieval Catholicism had again fallen into the error of viewing God as capricious and ready to strike people dead for the least provocation. The Mass was viewed as a sacrifice to satisfy God and make access available, but the one-and-for all character of the sacrifice of Christ was lost.
Early Protestantism, especially, Calvinism, struggled with the question of how a person knows they are secure with God. Election and eternal security were the answer - providing a person could be confident they were elect. Within the Wesleyan revival, the emphasis on the witness of the Holy Spirit with our spirits that we are authentically the children of God was again attempting to answer the question of security and confidence in our access to God.
The author of Hebrews was confident that the Old Testament sacrificial system did not and could not perfect those who approached God. The goal is not arrogance in approaching God, but the appropriate confidence (biblical perfection is being all that one should be at the given time). Thus to perfect those who approach God means that they should come to God in all the confidence and security that God intended for them. The problem that would keep them from that confident access to God was (and is) the sin problem since it is sin that blocks access to a Holy God. The Old Testament sacrificial system was not able to perfect those who approach God because it did not adequately deal with the consciousness of sin.
If worshippers were cleansed once for all there would not be continued and repeated consciousness of sin. The author is obviously arguing from a Christian perspective. He believes that a solution to the sin problem has been given in Christ and that will be explained in further detail later. From a Jewish perspective God had commanded the sacrificial system and as a result it would accomplish exactly what God wanted. God commanded the repeating of sacrifices, presumably because sin did not disappear with the sacrifice but was only atoned for to enable proper worship. A Jew could envision no improvement. But the author of Hebrews saw the repeating of the sacrifices as both evidence of and cause of ineffectiveness.
The repeating of the sacrifice provided a reminder of sins every year. The reminder was not of past sins forgiven, but of the present sin problem that prevented access to God. The annual reminder of sins meant that every year worshippers faced the choice of whether to repent of their sins or to persist in them. The very necessity of that choice being repeated was a weakness to the author of Hebrews. If the worshipper chose to repent then God would pardon. But the fact that God faced an annual Day of Atonement in which he would pardon sins means that he was reminded of sins as much as the worshippers. Indeed, the repeated sacrifice meant that both God and the worshipper were forced to remember sin. This violates the provision of the promise in Jeremiah 31:34 (quoted in Hebrews 8:12), "I will remember their sins no more." Thus the only conclusion that the author can draw is that the Old Testament sacrificial system failed to provide authentic access to God.
Cleansing Through Christ's Sacrifice - Hebrews 10:5-10
The transition to the second paragraph is accomplished by the word therefore or consequently. Verses 5-10 describe what happened as a result of the failure of the Old Testament sacrificial system. Since those sacrifices were ineffective, they have been superseded by the all-sufficient sacrifice of Christ.
The author begins with a quotation from Psalm 40:6-8. His first purpose is to show that even in the Old Testament there was criticism of the sacrificial system. There were a variety of Old Testament passages that could have been used to make this point: Psalm 51:16-17; I Samuel 15:22-23; Isaiah 1:11; Jeremiah 7:21-23; Hosea 6:6; Amos 5:21-24; and Micah 6:6-8.
The choice of Psalm 40:6-8 was probably made because of the testimony of verse 8 that the psalmist delighted to do God's will. The reference to "body" in Hebrews 10:5 also fits well with what the author will say about the body of Christ in verse 10. Another possible reason for the use of Psalm 40:6-8 is that the final line of verse 8, "your law is within my heart," connects with Jeremiah 31:33. It promises to put the Law within the people and to write it on their hearts. The Old Testament consistently points out that obedience is the real sacrifice that God desires and merely going through the ritual of sacrifice without the heart's participation is meaningless and even repulsive to God.
Hebrews 10:5-7 quotes Psalm 40:6-8 from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. This causes a major difference in wording between Psalm 40:6 and Hebrews 10:5 in most English versions. The Hebrew text of Psalm 40:6 literally declares that God had "dug" ears for the psalmist. Most English versions suggest a meaning of God opening the ears of the psalmist. (The NIV translation of piercing the psalmist's ears appears to be based on the unlikely possibility of a connection to Deuteronomy 15:17.)
The Greek translation of Psalm 40:6, however, states that God had prepared a body for the psalmist. This is what appears in most English versions of Hebrews 10:5 also. There is no easy explanation for the difference between the two readings. Perhaps the Greek translator thought that "digging ears" was too graphic and literalistic a way to describe creation. So he paraphrased from the creation of the part (ears) to the creation of the whole (body) and changed to a verb that he felt more appropriate.
The author of Hebrews would have seen two specific advantages to using the Greek text (body) of Psalm 40 rather than the Hebrew text (ears). First, the reference to the body would have triggered the thought of the Incarnation of Christ. Second, the body of Christ is what was crucified and thus was the object of sacrifice to which the author has referred in Hebrews 9.
Another reason that the author chose Psalm 40:6-8 is the fact that the psalmist concludes by stating that he had come to do God's will. The author of Hebrews had placed the psalm quotation on Jesus' lips in verse 5. "Therefore, when [Christ] came into the world he said, . . . " Thus in verse 7 it is Jesus who says, "I have come to do your will, O God." As Bruce (p. 242) notes, this statement "sums up the whole tenor of our Lord's life and ministry." Lane (p. 134) states, "According to this passage, the Christmas story is linked to the accomplishment of the will of God. Jesus is the model of committed obedience to God. He entered the world in fulfillment of the prophetic Scriptures to do the will of God, and to secure for us a relationship with God that is unparalleled in its intimacy."
The author of Hebrews then contrasts the statement from verse 5 about not desiring sacrifices and burnt offerings with the statement of verse 7 about desiring to do God's will. That was not different from what the Old Testament had already done. The difference is the conclusion that the author draws in verse 9b. He abolishes the first in order to establish the second. No Old Testament writer (and as far as we know no Jew) was ever that bold and able to conclude that the sacrificial system had been abolished. Some people have concluded that the whole concept of sacrifice was abolished and replaced by obedience and that the idea of Christ's sacrifice is thus unimportant. However, the contrast the author of Hebrews makes is between animal sacrifices and doing the will of God.
For Jesus the will of God included a sacrificial death, as the author of Hebrews has already argued. In verse 10 he furthers that argument to declare that by doing the will of God (dying a sacrificial death), we have been sanctified. Since the very meaning of the word sanctified is "to be made holy" the problem of how to approach a holy God has been solved once for all by the death of Christ. The meaning of verse 10 can be understood as the opposite of verse 1. That is to say, the sacrifice of Christ that was once for all instead of continually offered year after year is able to perfect those who approach God. In other words the sin problem that keeps us from approaching has been solved. It is possible to live without constant consciousness of sin.
That does not mean that our sins of the past are unimportant and can be easily and conveniently forgotten. It does not mean we cannot fall into sin. It does mean that we can live in fellowship and communion with God because the sacrifice of Christ was sufficient to be a once for all atonement for our sins.
Christ the New High Priest - Hebrews 10:11-14
Since the one sacrifice of Christ was effective in perfecting those who approach God, then Christ is also a new high priest to replace the Levitical priesthood. The way in which this new section on the high priesthood of Jesus parallels verses 1-10 can be seen by comparing verse 1 with verse 11.
The difference between verse 1 and verse 11 is that verse 1 emphasizes the sacrifices while verse 11 emphasizes the priests. The priests stand day after day offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins.
Verse 12 quickly moves to the contrast. Christ has offered one sacrifice for sin once and for all time. That has been argued in Hebrews 9 and 10:1-10. The author begins to finish off this section at this point. Not only does the sacrifice of Christ suffice for all time, but as a result of that sacrificial death Jesus has taken his seat at the right hand of God.
The phrase taken his seat at the right hand of God brings to mind Psalm 110:1. Psalm 110:1 has already been quoted or alluded to in Hebrews 1:3, 13, 8:1 and will be quoted in 12:2. Psalm 110:4, the Melchizedek passage, has been quoted in Hebrews 5:6, 10, 6:20, 7:3, 17, and 21. By this quotation from Psalm 110:1 the author draws together virtually all the arguments for the superiority of Christ to Judaism.
The reference from Psalm 110:1 to "taking his seat" also serves to mark the finality and effectiveness of Christ's once for all sacrifice. Christ taking his seat stands in contrast to the Jewish priests who stand every day offering sacrifices. Sitting down marked the end of the day's work. The work of Christ was done; the will of God for him accomplished by his sacrificial death on the cross. Sitting at God's right hand represented the special honor and status accorded to God's own Son, to the Messianic King, and to Jesus as Lord.
Verse 12 is in the past tense. Verse 13 is in the present tense awaiting a future action. After taking his seat at God's right hand Christ is waiting "until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet." These words echo the final line of Psalm 110:1. This reveals an interesting and important aspect to the New Testament understanding of Christ. Though Jesus has fulfilled many Old Testament prophecies (including Psalm 110:1a) there are other passages from the Old Testament that await their final fulfillment in Christ (such as Psalm 110:1b).
Scholars sometimes speak of the "already" and the "not yet" of Christ. Both the prophecies of the "already" and those of the "not yet" are spoken of in the Old Testament as coming at the end of time. The end of time would usher in the Age of the Messiah, the Age of the Spirit, and the Sovereign Rule of God. The New Testament is clear that the long-expected end of time has arrived in Christ. The future has invaded the present. The long awaited Messiah is no longer a pious future hope; he is a blessed present reality.
Since the end of time, the Age of Messiah, has already arrived there is a sense in which Christians do not look forward to anything else. There is nothing beyond the end of time. However, the "not yet" aspects of Christ show that the end of time still has to be completed. The Age of Messiah, the age of the Spirit have arrived, but they have not come in full power or control. That is still future and Christians look forward to that consummation of the Kingdom of God with eager anticipation.
The New Testament pattern was to hold both the "already" and the "not yet" in balance. Because of the "already" there was no doubt that the final consummation would come. New Testament Christians lived (and live) in the process of the unfolding of the end of time. It has started and is soon to be finished. Our hope for the future coming of Christ is, however, firmly based on what Christ has already done. Our confidence and certainty as we look forward to the consummation of the Kingdom are built on the reality of the work of Christ already accomplished. The challenge for present day Christians is to keep the look forward into the future and the look backward into the past in balance with each other. Only then we will be authentically New Testament believers.
Verse 14 brings together the arguments of verse 1, verse 10, and verses 11-12. For by the one offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. The word perfected is constructed in the Greek language to show that the author understood that the work of Christ accomplished perfection for believers at the point of Christ's death and that there is a continuing result from that. The work of being perfected goes on continually in our lives as a result of the death of Christ that provided perfection for us.
The word sanctified is constructed in Greek to show continuous action. The possibility of access to a holy God is always available to us because the process of being made holy (overcoming the sin that keeps us from God) is constantly unfolding. The author envisions both the victory of Christ on the cross and the victory of believers over sin as on-going realities in the Christian faith. F. F. Bruce (p. 247) noted, "Three outstanding effects are thus ascribed to the sacrifice of Christ: by it his people have had their conscience cleansed from guilt; by it they have been fitted to approach God as accepted worshipers; and by it they have experienced the fulfillment of what was promised in earlier days, being brought into the perfect relation to God which is involved in the new covenant." Thus the final thread to be tied in at this point is the new covenant.
The Success of the New Covenant - Hebrews 10:15-18
The author reminds his readers of his treatment of the new covenant in Hebrews 8 by quoting again, in verses 16 and 17, parts of the final two verses of Jeremiah 31:31-34, the new covenant passage. However, he prefaces that quotation by a very unusual introduction to a Scripture quotation. Verse 15 states And the Holy Spirit is bearing witness to us. For after saying, . . ." At that point the quotation of Jeremiah 31:33 begins in verse 16.
The author had introduced a scripture quotation in Hebrews 3:7 with the words, "The Holy Spirits says." However, the language of Hebrews 10:15 is much stronger. Not only does the Holy Spirit witness, but he is witnessing to us. Then as a separate phrase the quotation formula is given.
The author is trying to accomplish two things. First, he wants his readers to know that the Holy Spirit witnesses (also present continuous tense) to us of the perfecting, sanctifying results of the sacrifice of Christ. This is similar to Paul's thought in Romans 5:5 where the meaning of Christ's death is interpreted in our hearts as love through the Holy Spirit. It also reflects the language of Romans 8:14-17. The Holy Spirit witnesses with us that the results of Christ's sacrifice really become effective in our lives, in our daily relationship with God. Second, the author of Hebrews wants his readers to know that it is the Holy Spirit who brings the prophecy of Jeremiah 31:31-34 to reality in the death of Christ and in the lives of Christians.
Then in verse 16, the author quotes Jeremiah 31:33 about writing the Law on the people's hearts. This connects the conclusion back to the quotation of Psalm 40:6-8 above. Verse 17 quotes Jeremiah 31:34, that God would no longer remember his people's sins and lawless deeds. That author of Hebrews then concludes that if sins and iniquities have been forgiven, there is no longer any need for sacrifices.
Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion
These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.
As you begin each day pray that the Lord would speak to you through his Holy Spirit as you open yourself to his word.
First Day: Read the notes on Hebrews 10:1-18. Look up the Scripture references that are given.
1. Identify one or two new insights that seemed important to you. Why are they important?
2. Select a truth that has a personal application in your own life. How does it apply to you?
3. Write a brief prayer asking God to continue the work of perfecting and sanctifying you.
Second Day: Read Hebrews 10:19-39. Now focus in on Hebrews 10:19-25.
1. What benefit(s) does the blood of Christ provide according to the focus verses?
2. What responses to the death of Christ does the author want his readers to make? How are those responses related to each other?
3. Verse 22 speaks of approaching God with a true or genuine heart. What does the concept of approaching God with a genuine heart mean for you? Are there areas of your life about which you have not been honest with God?
Third Day: Read Hebrews 10:19-39. Focus again on Hebrews 10:19-25.
1. What is the confession of hope mentioned in verse 23? What is the hope of your life?
2. What reasons for assembling together are given in verses 24-25? What are your reasons for attending church? Do verses 24-25 give you any more reason to be with God's people?
3. Think of some specific people in your worshipping community. Describe some things you could do for them that would help stimulate love and good deeds in their lives.
Fourth Day: Read Hebrews 10:19-39. Now focus on Hebrews 10:26-31.
1. What are the consequences of willfully continuing to sin?
2. Why does this passage state that rejection of Christ will receive a much worse punishment than violating the Old Testament laws?
3. Write a prayer asking the Lord to help you live a life of faithful obedience to Christ, and to avoid the judgment of God?
Fifth Day: Read Hebrews 10:19-39. Now focus in on Hebrews 10:32-39.
1. What do verses 32-33 describe for the first readers of Hebrews? Have you ever experienced anything similar to what is described in these verses? If so, what?
2. What did the readers possess that was better and more lasting than their possessions?
3. Is your relationship with Christ more important to you than your possessions? List your top three priorities in life.
Sixth Day: Read Hebrews 10:19-39. Now focus your attention on Hebrews 10:32-39 again.
1. Verses 37-38 quote Habakkuk 2:3-4. Why does the author quote Habakkuk 2:3-4 in the context of the focus paragraph? How is his use of the Habakkuk 2:4 different from the way Paul used it in Romans 1:17?
2. What verse 39 mean? How does it apply to your life?
3. What kind of endurance did the first readers of Hebrews need? In what areas of life do you need endurance Write a brief prayer asking the Lord to help you in those areas of your life.