10 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. 2 Otherwise, 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. 3 But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins. 4 It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
5 Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said:
“Sacrifice and offering you did not desire,
but a body you prepared for me;
6 with burnt offerings and sin offerings
you were not pleased.
7 Then I said, ‘Here I am—it is written about me in the scroll —
I have come to do your will, my God.’”[a]
8 First he said, “Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them” —though they were offered in accordance with the law. 9 Then he said, “Here I am, I have come to do your will.” He sets aside the first to establish the second. 10 And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
If you know me well at all, you probably know that I don’t like bats. Well, that’s not quite accurate. It’s not that I don’t like bats. . . I absolutely abhor and despise them. They are truly some of the creepiest creatures that I have ever laid eyes on and I’m fairly convinced that they were not part of God’s original creation but must be a result of the Fall. While that might be debatable, the fact remains that I do not care to be anywhere near the vicinity of these little dark minions. Why the vitriol against bats you might wonder? While growing up we lived in a beautiful old house in an old neighborhood that was filled with massive trees. The neighborhood was a bat haven and we occasionally would get bats in the house. Let’s just say that this was enough cause me to hate bats. Every year, however, there seemed to be a ritual of trying to plug up holes and take precautions to make sure that we would have no bats in the house that summer. It was always a time of hope and joy for me that was quickly plunged back into reality with the appearance of the first bat in the house of each summer. It was always evidence that despite his best efforts, the work of my father had failed to keep us bat free for another year. Year after year he went through this ritual of climbing into the attic to plug up holes, making sure that all the windows were tight, that there were no holes in the screens, and so on, but it never worked. They kept coming back. That is, until the year after I left for college. My parents phoned me to inform me that they had finally “bitten the bullet” and paid to have professionals come in and “bat-proof” the house. That was a more costly option but it turned out to be the right one because it was effective. The bats getting into the house stopped immediately. We’ll leave aside legitimate questions about why my parents waited until after I moved out the house to make such a move, but the point is clear. The bat experts had solved the problem once-and-for-all and their solution was shown to be superior because they haven’t had to come back and repeat the process again and again.
Although we might have forgotten by this point, the author of Hebrews is still unpacking his exposition of Jeremiah 31 that stretches all the way back to chapter 8. God had always promised a new and better Covenant and now in Christ it had come. His continuing point is that the New Covenant is superior, among many other reasons, because it was only needed once. The bat solution that my parents paid for was superior because it didn’t need to happen every year but it’s not permanent in the sense that it will never be needed again. But Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross was superior to the yearly Temple sacrifices because it will never have to be repeated for all of eternity. To further his point in this section, the author, while still ultimately discussing Jeremiah 31, will turn to Psalm 40 within that discussion to make his point crystal clear.
Before that, however, he crystallizes the thought that the Law was never anything more than a shadow of what was to come. He doesn’t mean that somehow the Law was part of quasi-reality in relation to the “reality” of heavenly things as some Platonists of the day might have claimed but that the Law was not the ultimate promise. It was the menu that pointed to the meal, but not the meal itself. It could provide descriptions and pictures of the meal but you don’t get full by looking at a menu. For that you need the meal itself.
The author highlights two shortcomings of the Law in this regard. The first limitation is that the Law can never make anyone perfect. Of course that doesn’t refer to moral perfection but to “completeness.” The Law could conform a person’s exterior life but it could never transform a person from within and truly cleanse their conscience. It could not make one truly become more like God.
The second limitation is that the Law could never take away sin. That is why the sacrifices had to continue day after day, year after year. It is impossible, says Hebrews, for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. The sacrifices of the Temple might have seemed immediate and had the effect of making one feel better for a time but the harsh reality of their ineffectiveness were on display for everyone as soon as preparations for the next sacrifice had to be made. The reason is that the sacrifices of the Old Covenant were never meant to take away sin. They were always meant as a picture and shadow of Jesus Christ. They were always meant to be the menu and not the meal. This was a particularly important point for a community that had seen many of their own struggle with the idea of returning to Judaism. That would be as silly as walking away from a meal and going back to looking at a menu.
The writer places the sacrifices in their proper context by turning to Psalm 40, from which he quotes in verses 5-7. The Psalm gets at a point that became increasingly clear in the Old Testament. Namely that God did not ultimately desire animal sacrifices. They were a temporary teaching tool but nothing more. Although God had prescribed the sacrifices to teach his people of their need for the perfect sacrifice, he continued to remind them that he desired their hearts in obedience more than mere sacrifice (1 Sam. 15:22; Ps. 50:8-10; Isa. 1:10-13; Jer. 7:21-24; Hos. 6:6).
The sacrifice of Jesus stood in contrast to the ritual animal sacrifices in two profound ways that forever resulted in the superiority of Christ’s sacrifice. The first was that in contrast to animal sacrifice, Jesus offered his own body. In using Psalm 40, the author of Hebrews brings out an idea that becomes clear in the context of Jesus’ death on the Cross but that would have been virtually impossible to understand before that. It was God’s will to give his Son a human body in the Incarnation, knowing full well that it was that life that would be laid down as the great sacrifice that all others merely pictured.
The second contrast to animal sacrifice that was significant about the death of Jesus is that there was a will involved. Sacrificial animals could, at best, stand compliantly and submit to being sacrificed because they didn’t know any better but no one could argue that they were willingly giving up their lives as a sacrifice for others. The reality is that animals were sacrificed against their will. But that is not true of Jesus. He came in the flesh as a human being to do the will of God. And that is precisely the point where human beings got into trouble. God made humans in his image, meaning to reflect and represent his will into the world. He gave human beings their own free will but that included the choice to reflect God’s perfect will into his creation. That is the purpose for which humans were made, but sadly human beings chose to exalt our own will over God’s, an act which is called “sin.” That all started, of course, in the Garden of Eden when human beings chose their own will over God’s, but each human has continued that sinful rebellion in our own right. Thus, the act of doing our own will is what separated us from God in the first place and it continues to be the problem. Jesus came to reverse that. His primary purpose as a human was to come and do God’s will. Just as humans had sinned by doing their own will in the Garden, Jesus came to reverse that by going into another Garden (Gethsemane) and willingly doing God’s will rather than his own human will.
Jesus completed the will of God at the expense of his own life. He willingly laid down his life as a sacrifice, showing his sacrifice to be far superior to anything that could be offered up under the Old Covenant. That perfect sacrifice immediately rendered the previous inferior sacrifices unnecessary. Once the meal comes you don’t need the menu anymore. Once my parent’s house had been bat-proofed there was no need for the yearly “plug-the-holes” mission. And once Jesus had willingly laid down his own life as the sacrifice for sin, the entire system of the Old Covenant could be put down. It was no longer needed and no longer effective. It might have an external appeal, but the true internal work of cleansing from sin had come.
Through Jesus’ submission to the will of the Father, something had been accomplished that could never ever happen under the Old Covenant. Those who accept and abide in the sacrifice and life of Christ can be made holy once-and-for-all. In other words, we can be “sanctified” or “set apart” for our intended purpose. In Christ, we are enabled to begin the transformational process of being restored to the image of God and to reflect his will into the world. The Law could point out sin and set someone apart as a law breaker but it could never set someone apart to be holy. Only Christ could do that. Truly Christ is not just the only high priest worth having but is also the only sacrifice for sin that we will ever need. Glory be to God.
One of the major elements of Jesus’ life was to do the will of God and enable us to do the same. Have you truly embraced the mission of laying down your own life and taking up the life of Christ so that your life really is about God’s will and not your own? What are the biggest areas of struggle for you when it comes to surrendering your own will and embracing God’s?