Both Offerer and Offering
One of the primary concerns of the writer to the Hebrews is the priesthood of Christ. The duty of a priest is to represent humans before God. In order to fulfill this responsibility effectively, the priest must be human himself. The priest must also be sinless. The only priest who has ever met these requirements is Jesus Christ, and He has met them perfectly.
Remarkably, Christ was not only the priest who offered sacrifice, but also the sacrifice that was offered. Not surprisingly, once the author of Hebrews has discussed the priesthood of Christ, he turns his attention to Christ as the offering for sins. In Hebrews 10, he examines Christ as the sin offering, drawing out the meaning of Jesus’ sacrifice by contrasting the person and ministry of Christ with the Levitical sacrifices of the Old Testament.
He begins by observing that the Old Testament offerings were shadows and not ultimate realities, and then notes that those sacrifices could never make the offerers perfect (1). In other words, the Old Testament sacrifices could never actually remove the guilt of sin. If they could have, the need to offer additional sacrifices would have been eliminated (2). If one’s sins have been completely forgiven, then one does not need any further sacrifice. Yet the Levitical sacrifices on the Day of Atonement were made every year, year after year (3). The necessity of repeating the sacrifices should have proved that the blood of animal sacrifices could not remove sins (4).
The Old Testament sacrifices could not take away sin. Brute animals could never fulfill the role of sin-bearers. If sin were ever to be removed, if guilt were to be dealt with, then some other sacrifice would be necessary. But what other kind of sacrifice could be efficacious? To answer this question, the writer cites Psalm 40:6-8, putting its words into the mouth of the Messiah (5-7).
The citation contains two elements. The first is a denial of the efficacy of the Levitical sacrifices. According to the psalm, God does not desire sacrifices and offerings. He takes no pleasure in burnt offerings or sin offerings. Even in the Old Testament, God’s people should have known (and David clearly did know) that their sacrifices could not remove their sins.
The second element is the statement of Messianic purpose. When God sent Messiah into the world, He did not send Him as a disembodied spirit or a temporary theophany. God prepared a body for the Messiah—a very human body (the original text of the psalm actually makes reference to His ears). This body was necessary in order for Messiah to do God’s will, and Messiah’s whole purpose in the incarnation was doing the will of God (7).
The writer points out the juxtaposition between these two elements (8-10), and he discovers a causal relationship between them. In order for Messiah to do God’s will, He had to take away the sacrifices and offerings. The removal of the sacrifices was necessary because God’s will was to sanctify believers through the offering of the body of Jesus once for all. If believers were to be sanctified once for all, then obviously no further sacrifice could be necessary or even possible. In the nature of the case, by doing God’s will, Messiah would remove the entire system of sin offerings. When a final sacrifice has been offered, no other sacrifice can be permitted.
The writer reinforces this conclusion by looking back to the priestly activity of the tabernacle and temple (11-14). During his ministry, every Levitical priest had to labor every day, performing the same service and offering the same sacrifices. These men had no rest because they were always ministering. Neither tabernacle or temple contained chairs because the priests were constantly working and could not sit down. Their constant standing in the repetition of their duties was mute testimony that the sacrifices they offered could never take away sins.
Messiah, however, offered a single sacrifice for sins, and He offered it for all time. When He had offered His sacrifice, He sat down at the right hand of God. The Messiah’s sitting contrasts strongly with the Levitical priests’ constant standing. They stood because their work was never done. He sat because His work was fully accomplished. It was finished. No other sacrifice needs to be offered in order for our sins to be forgiven. No other sacrifice ever could be offered. By a single offering, Messiah has perfected forever those who are being sanctified.
The offering of the body of Jesus was utterly and completely efficacious. By His sacrificial death He accomplished everything that needed to be done for the satisfaction (propitiation) of God’s justice and the removal (expiation) of our guilt. We can add nothing to His work. We can offer nothing in exchange for it. We can only receive it, humbly as sinners ought, freely as those who have nothing to pay.
The basest insult that anyone can ever offer to God is to try to add something to the finished work of Christ. Salvation is not a matter of cooperation between God and the sinner. It is something that God has done, entirely from His side, entirely through the offering of the body of Jesus. To mix in our feeble attempts at morality or our own rags of righteousness is to declare the work of Christ insufficient and imperfect. To pretend that one can somehow repeat or re-present His offering is the height of spiritual arrogance. We have nothing to add to Jesus’ offering, and if we try to add something, we are betraying the fact that we are not trusting in His finished work.
Christ has paid for our salvation. When we trust Him, God no longer remembers our sins and injustices. For Jesus’ sake, God utterly forgives our evil-doing: past, present, and future, once for all. When we stand thus forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sins (15-18).
Jesus Christ is our perfect High Priest. He is also our perfect sin offering. In order to become the efficacious sacrifice, He had to be utterly perfect Himself, but He also had to be utterly human. God prepared a body for Him—a very human body that could experience death. Because He offered, not some finite sacrifice of the blood of brutes, but His own body, He can and does save us to the uttermost. This is the true meaning of Christmas.
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Thou art the King of Glory, O Christ. Thou art the everlasting Son of the Father. When thou tookest upon thee to deliver man thou didst not abhor the Virgin’s womb. When thou hadst overcome the sharpness of death thou didst open the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers. Thou sittest at the right hand of God in the glory of the Father. We believe that thou shalt come to be our Judge.
Basque carol; trans. Sabine Baring-Gould (1834-1924)
The angel Gabriel from heaven came,
His wings as drifted snow, his eyes as flame.
“All hail,” said he, “thou lowly maiden Mary,
Most highly favored lady.” Gloria!
“For know a blessed mother thou shalt be;
All generations laud and honor thee.
Thy Son shall be Emanuel, by seers foretold,
Most highly favored lady.” Gloria!
Then gentle Mary meekly bowed her head:
“To me be as it pleaseth God,” she said.
“My soul shall laud and magnify his holy name.”
Most highly favored lady. Gloria!
Of her, Emanuel, the Christ was born
In Bethlehem, all on a Christmas morn.
And Christian folk throughout the world will ever say:
“Most highly favored lady.” Gloria!