Hebrews 10:1-18

Rev. David H. Linden

University Presbyterian Church, Las Cruces, NM  USA

(revised September, 2011)

 

The long didactic section of Hebrews ends in 10:18. There will be further teaching, but the chief doctrinal core of the book ends here. Unbroken exposition began with Melchizedek; only in 10:19 does the writer return to exhortation.  Hebrews demonstrates that good preaching must supply truth to believe and then make an appeal for proper response.

 

Note the contrast: in 9:28 Christ was offered once, but other sacrifices are repeated (10:1). The repeated sacrifices the law required could not make the worshippers perfect, but what came in the new covenant did, with changed hearts and forgiveness. The new covenant makes the old one obsolete (8:13) and Jesus is the mediator/guarantor of the new one (7:22; 9:15). The teaching progresses from the accomplishment of Christ’s objective work to the new covenant benefits in the lives of His own. It would be a harmful oversimplification to say Hebrews turns now from Christ’s work on the cross to His work within us. Instead, it stresses the effects of His offering by joining His finished work to how His sacrifice affects those He is saving. 

 

A variety of contrasts appear in Hebrews 7 – 10. Not all are repeated here, such as priests who die vs. One who lives forever, and what sanctuary they serve in, but many contrasts finish this passage:

 

  • the law’s requirements and the new covenant’s gifts
  • not being made perfect vs. being made perfect
  • continuing to feel guilty vs. having forgiveness
  • being reminded of sin rather than forgiveness
  • many sacrifices vs. one 
  • sacrifices and offerings in which God did not delight, vs. His will that ordered the sacrifice of the body of Christ
  • priests who continue to offer vs. our Priest who offered once
  • priests who returned again and again, vs. the Priest who remained
  • priests who stood vs. the One who sat down

 

This passage draws from Scripture. It introduces Psalm 40, returns yet again to Psalm 110, and once more to Jeremiah 31.  Certain things in Psalm 40 are fulfilled only in Christ, and Psalm 110 promises a Priest Who will sit down. Jeremiah’s promise of new covenant blessings can come only on the basis of Jesus’ sacrifice.  His Priesthood supercedes other priests and all they did. 

 

Since all this is so, it would be a major rejection of all that God promised and has done in sending Christ for anyone to reject Him by putting hope in a sacrifice that cannot remove sin.  Hebrews has laid a careful foundation for the personal application of these truths in the section to follow. There is no other sacrifice (10:26), and thus no other gospel.

 

 

10:1-4   Hebrews again presents shadows in contrast to realities (see 8:5). This is not a distinction of true versus false, but of real things that compare as complete and incomplete. The two have a connection but must not be confused. The shadow of a tree is real because the tree is real, but only one is real when it comes to chopping it down for firewood. A shadow of a tree is entirely inadequate for burning. The sacrifices the law required were real sacrifices; they were even made in connection with forgiveness, but they were only shadows of the one sacrifice that could take away sin and did. 

 

Three contrary to fact statements:

 

 7:11     If perfection could have been attained through the Levitical priesthood … but it could not.

 8:7       If there was nothing wrong with the first covenant  but there was.

10:1,2   If those sacrifices could have made perfect those who draw near … but they could not.

 

The chief argument given here is that they were repeated endlessly. Anything that must be repeated over and over, like washing our hands, shows that a one-time event of that kind is inadequate. An OT sacrifice did not remove some sins and then a later one removed more. No, none of them removed any sin because all of them were shadows unable to take away sin. A bull or goat losing its life did not truly correspond to the seriousness of a man disobeying God. If it had to be repeated, it never accomplished the perfection of the sinner drawing near to God. If goat blood were adequate to the need, it would have stopped being offered. The law itself never commanded any sacrifice to be offered only once. All were repeated, because all were only shadows. If the law had given any sacrifice offered only once, it would have been an unreliable shadow, a sacrifice that drew attention to itself and its uniqueness rather than pointing to our need of Christ by its repetition. 

 

Perfection is a term for all of God’s requirements having been met so fully by Christ that God finds the sinner fully acceptable in Him. Perfection is expressed also as being cleansed, not outwardly but in the conscience, and not repeatedly but once. Perfection equals the once-for-all-cleansing of salvation. The sinner, who by faith has Christ as His sacrifice, has in that purging blood what has already satisfied God concerning his sin. Nothing in all of life is needed more and is more valuable, yet in the gospel it is freely given to us without any role on our part in removing our guilt. When the believer knows this truth and rests in this Savior, he enjoys the peace attained by Christ (Romans 5:1), the total cleansing from all his sin that has been provided for him. Therefore he has a conscience that knows nothing more is needed than Christ. This motivates him to a life of active repentance.  (See “Cleansing the Conscience” in the notes at 9:14, and Appendix I The Present Perfection of Imperfect People” below.)  

 

Sacrifices that had to be repeated did not bring peace to the conscience. On the Day of Atonement the people had this annual reminder that sins were not removed by the offerings of the previous year. They knew that the offerings of the following year would repeat the same message about the offerings being made that day. 

 

Provisional Things   A provisional government is one that functions for a time until the real one can take its place.  I have a provisional airmiles card, a piece of paper with a real number on it – to serve until the plastic card comes in the mail. Provisional things serve a good purpose but are not intended to last. The priesthood of Levi was provisional, serving until the permanent priesthood arrived (7:24). A provisional covenant was in place till replaced by a superior covenant (8:6). And so it is with multiple sacrifices forever replaced by just one (10:9), and a tabernacle that is now gone as a place where God dwelt on earth (9:8-10; John 4:19-26). 

 

To hold to anything God presented as provisional after the ultimate has arrived, is to reject the purpose of the One Who set up the temporary arrangement and then set it aside when that role was finished. Such a sin is aggravated even more if, during the provisional period, the Lord revealed that a replacement was coming. This is precisely what has happened in Scripture. The Lord with an oath announced a Priest of a different order who would serve forever (Psalm 110:4). God also promised a new covenant; and gave a detailed explicit prophesy of the death and resurrection of Christ. Christ is the wise Servant of the Lord, Who, one day, one time would bear sins in one offering (Isaiah 52:13-53:12). God indicated in His Word that the provisional would yield to a single event and a single Person, the sacrifice of Christ. The Holy Spirit showed that Psalm 40 should be understood this way as well.

 

 

The Value of Shadows 

Why would God require sacrifices if they are only shadows? Shadows cannot exist on their own; there are other things that cause them. The shadow of a passing airplane happens only because an airplane flew overhead. A shadow is a witness to a greater reality.  Had Christ come and died for sinners with no sacrifices in advance, even though they never removed sin, we would have lost a vital witness to the gospel. No one would have understood as clearly the issues of sin, wrath, substitution, propitiation, reconciliation, forgiveness, and purification from sin. The words themselves are abstract; the knife above an innocent victim and blood dripping on the ground was not. It caught their attention and taught a lesson too; it prepared God’s people for Christ. To hold only to the shadow is to miss the Savior, but to be without a shadow would be a loss of what God had wisely given over centuries to make people wince at their sin and long for the coming of the effective sacrifice.

 

The readers of Hebrews needed convincing that their hope for all eternity needed an offering of substance, not mere shadow. They needed a sacrifice so effective God will oppose every thought of it being repeated in any way. In the message of Christ they had a great salvation. They needed to pay careful attention that they not drift from it (2:1-4), for to drift from Christ is to face God without a sacrifice.

 

10:5-7   The Words of Christ in Psalm 40   Psalm 40 was written by David. When it says, “My sins have overtaken me, and I cannot see” in v.12, such words cannot refer to Christ. We might approach such Psalms with a rule that the Psalmist must speak of himself or Christ, and never words common to both. If so, we apply a rule the Scripture does not use. Christ is the Son of David, and when David spoke as king, he spoke of a throne that really belonged to Christ. He and his sinful sons were each temporary and unworthy occupants of the throne of Christ. The true king of Israel was always the Lord Himself (1 Samuel 8); every other human king in some way showed himself unworthy of that role. The Holy Spirit had David say words of truth about sacrifices and obedience, words probably unknown to him, which fit the mouth of Christ far better than his.

 

A number of prophets spoke against offerings made with disobedient hearts (Isaiah 1:10-17; Amos 5:21-27; plus Hosea 6:6, which was quoted by Christ twice). The OT did not set sacrifice against obedience; it insisted that they be joined. David repented with a contrite heart in Psalm 51:17 and then spoke of animal offerings on God’s altar (in v.19). It was God Who required them, so it would be a great evil to disregard His appointed shadows! Yet His special delight was in one offering that would be the epitome of sacrifice, the one to end all others, and the epitome of obedience, the perfect doing of His will by the one offering of Christ. 

 

In Psalm 40, David wrote as a man whose heart had been moved to obey; he spoke words beyond himself. Ten centuries later the Holy Spirit would take David’s words in Psalm 40 and show how well they fit the entire mission of Christ. The words express perfectly Christ’s attitude and assignment from His Father, as well as the fullness of time when all the other offerings would cease. The old system was not God’s delight; He would set it aside when He brought in its fitting replacement. The incarnation of Christ is stated here as God preparing a human body for His Son, a body to be offered, a body that would replace the offering of all animal bodies. It would be used in a sacrifice that would delight, please, and satisfy God forever. This could be said of no other offering of any kind in all of history.

 

The body to be offered is only part of the picture. With Christ, unlike the offerings the OT protested, we do not have the evil of a correct sacrifice presented to God by an incorrect heart. Psalm 40 anticipated a better offering made by a fully obedient Man; i.e., by Christ doing God’s will.  

 

At this point two strands meet: the obedience of Christ to come here on His Messianic mission, and His obedience as a man born under the law. Just as Jesus is both the Priest Who offers and the offering He made, He is the One obedient to God by assuming the body prepared for Him, and further, living obediently as a man. He was the unblemished sacrifice. Obedience from both angles was essential. He obeyed by coming, and when here He was perfected in human obedience in order to be the source of salvation (5:9).  

 

 

Ear or Body?   Why does the OT say in Psalm 40:6, “… my ears you have opened” when 10:5 refers to a body? The OT was translated into Greek more than 150 years before the birth of Christ. One scholar suggests that the translators took the original ears as the part for the whole. If God has our ear, He has us. This fits so well the words of Christ in Isaiah 50:5, where the opened ear is the language of obedient listening. All translators moving from one language to another, face hard choices on how to say that thought in this language. For some reason the LXX chose to say body rather than ear, to convey the meaning of the Hebrew. Similarly, the NIV replaces “bowels” in Philemon 12 with the more understood metaphor “heart”. A devoted body is also a way to express obedience. Since Psalm 40 and Hebrews 10 emphasize doing God’s will, the obedience may be indicated either way. Scripture elsewhere uses the imagery of both ear and body for obedience (Romans 12:1 and Isaiah 50:5).

 

10:8-10   The replacement that pleases God is already here. For this reason He sets aside the first to establish the second. The first is the entire system of blood sacrifices required in the law, plus the men who offer them.  The second is the once-for-all-time, pleasing sacrifice of the body of Christ by Christ, the only Man in history to do God’s will. The second brings holiness the first could not produce. When God has set aside the first order, we should not seek to reestablish it. This was one error tempting some of the readers. To reverse God’s ‘first’ and ‘second’ is to gain blood but not cleansing when we have been given cleansing with no further need for blood.

 

10:11-14   Except for the Ark of the Covenant as the Lord’s throne (Psalm 80:1), the tabernacle had no chair.  Priests stood during the daily incense offerings in the Holy Place. They did not sit; there was no seat for them. The tabernacle was built according to God’s design (8:5) with the deliberate absence of a place to sit. Priests stood to serve and left. This is a deliberate contrast to Christ entering God’s Presence and remaining. That Jesus sat began in 1:3; Hebrews waited till chapter 10 to mention that other priests stood.  

 

With all that has been said about taking away sins, one wonders why it is repeated again in 10:11,12. The crucial contrast had to be held before the readers. Other priests had a temporary ministry, always unfinished, always in need of repetition, and thus never actually taking away sin forever.  Repeated offerings that remind of sin (10:3) are the opposite of God remembering our sins no more (10:17)    a contrast pointed out in the text (vv. 3 & 17). The author had to make his point clear: a repeated offering means sin has not been removed; if the offering does not need to be repeated, it has finished its work. The finished work of Christ is shown in a negative and positive: it is not repeated, and He sat down. There He remains and does not leave to offer again. The finality shows God’s purpose had been attained. 

 

10:13   Jesus is active in building His church (Matthew 16:18), but here it is the Father’s activity turning Christ’s enemies into His footstool (Psalm 110:1). The note of a reward for His work is behind this. When His enemies become His footstool, they can no longer shake their fists in His face. They are defeated. The coming of the Day of Judgment is certain; all will bow, either in advance allegiance or eventual submission. Christ is the key issue between God and man. We bow now by acknowledging Him in every role the Father gave Him, accepting Him as Lord and accepting also His mediation for His people. The first readers of Hebrews knew there were people tempted to reject the Priesthood of Christ in spite of all the OT taught about it. They may have known of wavering church members (3:12-14). The warnings of apostasy appear early and late in this book; another is about to appear in chapter 10. Anyone who rejects Christ’s work rejects Him.

 

10:14   Jesus waits (10:13) seated (10:12) because His sacrifice has made perfect those for whom it was offered. The beneficiaries are stated as those who are being made holy; it is not a universal atonement. If His sacrifice failed to make perfect, then it was in need of further work, and His being “all done” and seated would be a contradiction of unfinished business. His perfect work and the perfection delivered to those He represented form a tight connection. 

 

 

The Perfection of the Believer in Christ   This perfection is as perfect as the sacrifice offered to God. The resurrection has this same note of approval and finality. Jesus was raised because in His righteousness He deserved to be, and because the offering He made was accepted for His people. He was delivered for our sins and raised for our justification (Romans 4:25). It is not that Jesus in His ministry did His part and now the completion of being “perfected” (10:14) falls back on the one being saved. The perfection of the forgiven sinner rests only on the perfection of the sacrifice of the perfect Christ Who died and rose again. Christ has removed every obstacle to fellowship with God. Any addition to Christ and His work subtracts from the adequacy of His mediation. This is a massive and fatal insult to the work of Christ. It denies that He genuinely represented His saints to accomplish and deliver redemption effectively. This is one of the chief points of Christian gospel where the Church of Rome has come to grief, and many these days in Protestant circles are failing to see, (and trust in) the supreme value and completeness of the work of Christ. 

 

10:15-17   We should not miss the way Hebrews speaks of Holy Scripture. The writer again takes words of David in Psalm 40 and says they are the Lord’s. This is a proper view of God’s Word. No matter how many human authors He used, it is still His word, with the same quality of truth and dependability of God’s character.  3:7 says the Holy Spirit says; here it is He witnesses. And that way of saying it joins two things together intentionally. 10:14 says God has made men perfect and also makes men holy. Now we learn that what the Holy Spirit said in Jeremiah 31 about the new covenant is the same content. Men made perfect and holy is what God promised in the new covenant, but when that covenant was promised in the OT, it spoke of benefits that were coming. Now Hebrews affirms that the change of heart and justification (forgiveness of sins) are new covenant benefits and explicitly connects them to the sacrifice of Christ.

 

Note the flow of thought in Hebrews 10:

  • One sacrifice once for all time has been offered, v.12. 
  • Because it is effective, Christ sat down with no further sacrifice needed, v.12.
  • A double result has been secured by this sacrifice: perfection and sanctification, v.14.
  • It is to this very thing that the Holy Spirit was testifying when He promised a new covenant.  His testimony was of benefits that come through Christ’s death, vv.15-17.

 

Note 1) the “first He says” in v.15 – re God’s law in the hearts; and 2) “then He adds”, v.17 – re sins remembered no more. This first and second way of speaking highlights that justification and sanctification are not synonymous but are distinguished new covenant blessings.[1] 

 

 

Law and Gospel

 

10:1 gives what the law cannot do (perfect the worshipper) but 10:15-17 shows that in the new covenant the heart is changed (10:16) and sins removed (10:17). Why such a difference? In the law God tells man what He requires of them; in the new covenant God tells what God does for them.  This doing by God for man is our salvation. This is the gospel.  Salvation is accomplished by the Son Whose mission concerning our sin was to do the will of the Father (10:7-10).  Thus we are justified by the doing and dying of Jesus Christ (gospel). We cannot be saved by what we do, (law).  Our best obedience is corrupt, so attempting to be saved by keeping the law simply brings to us the wrath of God (Romans 4:15), since the law cannot approve of our sin and shows our sin to be sinful! Yet the law in itself is holy and good (Romans 7:12). A fundamental distinction in the Bible is to see the difference. God’s good law cannot save, because God’s bad man cannot obey. God’s gracious gospel is that God sent Christ here to keep the law for us, to suffer the penalty of the law for us (this is gospel). We are justified apart from our works (law) by means of faith (gospel).  Faith is consistent with the gospel, because faith for justification does not produce or plead its good response to God’s law (that would be law). Instead a sinner as a sinner, without any production of virtue, (that too would be law), receives from God eternal life, the righteousness of Christ, and forgiveness of sin (gospel). We do not shed any blood of ours, which would just be another way for us to meet the law’s demands.  All this comes as a gift, so it is gospel. In the new covenant God in His activity (gospel) brings to us forgiveness. Further, in the new covenant the believer receives the gift of the Spirit (gospel) and the Spirit produces the good fruit of the new covenant in our hearts, bringing us by His mighty power (gospel again) to sincere obedience to His law as His redeemed children. If we begin with the gospel, we will end with obedience to the law. If we approach God with our law-keeping, we will never come to the gospel, nor to Christ, nor to any of the benefits of the new covenant.  Seeking God’s favor by means of our contribution to justification is legalism. It means, when we believe the lies of our hearts, that we have lost the gospel, rejected the only Priest Who can save, cannot have the Spirit, and will die in our sins as proud self-deceived law-breakers. 

 

10:18   In 10:1-4 offerings for sin were repeated; in 10:18 no longer needed. The provisions of the law were inadequate, but in the new covenant sin is taken away. Christ has done the will of God (10:7-10) in His body in life and in death; therefore new covenant blessing is fully secured. With no more sacrifice for sins, the priests may put away their knives, trust in the sacrifice that saves, and join the rest of the house of God (under our Great Priest 10:21) offering with all His church our sincere sacrifices of praise (13:15,16).  

 

 

 

 

Appendix I  The Present Perfection of Imperfect People

“made perfect”  and  “being made holy”

 

The apparent contradiction!   If a person has been perfected, how is it possible that he is in the process of being made holy?  10:14 says, “… by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.” This sounds like a contradiction, as if it meant that people are perfect and are not. We should not avoid this question because it will nag at the conscience of any person aware of his sin. Perfection is vital to the gospel.  We rest on the perfection of the sacrifice made and the perfection granted.  

 

Jesus makes people perfect; the verse says that. But when? Is it the time of the resurrection when Christians are perfected?  (From the angle of our conduct, this is true.) However, 10:14 speaks of perfection in another sense.  It is clear that Christ has already made perfect the ones He is currently sanctifying. A person might even wonder if Hebrews is giving people a puzzle to solve. It is not; it is simply stating, in the vocabulary of Hebrews, the same doctrine in other Scriptures that say the believer in Christ is righteous – even though he has sin in his conduct.  If this is a great puzzle, it is not confined to Hebrews. What 10:14 is teaching is the absolute perfection of persons still very much imperfect.  How can this be?

 

The simple answer is that we are perfect in Christ and imperfect in ourselves. We are righteous in status and yet not fully righteous in conduct. Sin remains in us, so the Christian is perfect in one sense and imperfect in another. 

 

An illustration from our culture   In our day we have passports. I am a Canadian citizen; my passport says I am a citizen, but it is not a statement of being a good citizen. Further, a passport never means that a person is a partial citizen, or that some citizens are more citizens than others. At least in my country there is no scale of citizenship; it is a status one has or does not have. A status does not have a matter of degree, even though conduct is subject to a scale of relatively good or bad. From the standpoint of status, Christ has made perfect by His sacrifice those for whom He died.[2] 

 

The perspective of perfection in Hebrews is the cleansing that allows approach to God. A variety of words are used to describe what is delivered to us as the effect of Christ’s sacrifice: cleanse (9:14; 10:2); set free from sins (9:15); do away with sin (9:26); take away sins (9:28); make perfect (10:1); have been made holy (10:10); and made perfect (10:14).

 

10:1,2 teach that if the sacrifices of the law had been effective, the worshipper would have been cleansed. This verse implies that what those sacrifices could not do is what the sacrifice of Christ does do. Likewise, 7:19 says the law made nothing perfect. The contrast would be nonsense if it were saying the law made nothing perfect and neither did the mediation of Christ. The whole point of 10:1,2 is that Christ’s sacrifice has done what the law cannot. 7:19 shows that in this perfection granted, one may draw near to God. This is a situation that demands purification of sinners.

 

The perfection attained for us by the sacrifice of Christ must be the same quality as that found in Christ. Since Jesus was made perfect (7:28), this cannot be His perfection as the Son of God (1:3) because He always had that.  It was His human perfection that was developed in the days of His life on earth (5:7-10). It was the obedience learned in suffering and made perfect in time that qualified Him to be our Savior.  If Christ then makes perfect, and He does, then His perfection is the kind mentioned in 10:14. The human righteousness of His obedience is the kind 10:14 has in mind. Our perfection is not possible unless there is the imputation of His righteousness.

 

Hebrews does not distinguish the human perfection developed in Christ (in 5:9 and 7:28) from the human perfection He grants to those He is making holy. Thus righteousness received as a gift (Romans 5:15,16,17) is the same righteousness that comes from God (Philippians 3:9) for those in Christ through faith in Him. The obedience acquired is the obedience of Christ (Romans 5:19). In this way we are made to be the righteousness of God in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:21); He is our righteousness (1 Corinthians 1:30).  Just as the righteousness Abraham had was one he received by faith (Romans 4:13)    and a received righteousness cannot be a reference to his conduct – we too by faith are made perfect (10:14) by the righteousness God imputes to us entirely apart from our works (Romans 4:6). Thus Christ makes perfect the man who in himself was ungodly (Romans 4:5) with sin remaining in him (1 John 1:8-10), but in Christ that man has become righteous. 

 

This appears to be an intolerable tension. It would be if it were an eternal situation; we must remember it is temporary. God does not allow us to be perfect in Christ in status while He does nothing to transform our conduct. No person who lacks holiness in life will see the Lord (12:14), because such a man has never been made perfect by Christ. If He had been, the Lord’s sanctifying work would have produced a harvest of righteounsess in him (10:14; 12:11). Making people holy in 10:14 is a work of God in every child of His so that all share in His holiness (12:4-12).  It is never true that a believer may live in sin. (See Can a Christian Live in Sin? in the notes at 2:11.) Becoming holy is brought to us progressively. The gift of eternal life is ours now; the resurrection of the body is future. Jesus took away our sins in His first coming (9:28) yet still brings salvation in His second (9:28). Likewise, Christ has made perfect already (10:14) those He continues to make holy (10:14).

 

 



[1] It is not the point in Hebrews 10 how OT saints could be justified and sanctified. Romans 4 makes clear that Abraham and David were justified by faith apart from works, just as we are (Romans 3:28). It puzzles us how the new covenant blesses before it was ratified. It would be ratified only in the blood of Christ, yet since all salvation is in this covenant and no other, it was how God was saving in His covenant of grace in all ages. We are saved by a sacrifice made, and they were saved by a sacrifice that would be made.  The foundation and means of salvation are identical. The way the gospel was manifested to their eyes differs.

[2] It is not a question that Hebrews deals with to say when this perfection has occurred.  I submit that one is justified when he believes and not before, since even God’s elect were under God’s wrath before they were made alive to God (Ephesians 2:1-5).  Since we are speaking of justification, I think the time factor is resolved in this way.  Christ in His life and death had the obedience and death necessary for our justification.  It was accomplished in Christ in His time on earth.  This benefit is applied to us in our lifetime in calling, regeneration, faith, and justification.  Justification is still not a declaration about our lives, but about the new status granted to us as a gift, merited and attained for us by Christ.