Cleansed Once for All

Series: Hebrews

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Dec 2, 1998

Hebrews 10:1-18

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Turn with me to Hebrews 10.  Last week we focused in Hebrews 9: 15-28 on the finality of Christ’s sacrifice. This week we focus on a related subject — the perfection of Christ’s sacrifice. Last week we emphasized the fact that whereas Old Testament sacrifices repeated themselves, Christ’s sacrifice was once for all. And therein lies one of the fundamental differences between the Old Testament sacrificial system and the New Testament sacrificial system. The author of Hebrews wants to press this point a bit further in Hebrews 10 and his contrast is going to be between a sacrifice that actually works and sacrifices that merely foreshadowed the sacrifice that really works. That is going to be his contrast between the Old Testament sacrifices and the work of Jesus Christ. Let’s look at Hebrews 10 and we begin in verse 1.

Hebrews 10:1-18

“Our Father, we thank You again for this words of the author of Hebrews and we thank You for the way they strike at the very heart of the gospel, teaching us fundamental truths about how we are reconciled with God, how we fellowship with You.  Help us to understand these things tonight. Give us clarity of thought and focus and concentration and by Your Spirit enlighten us to the truth of Your word. We ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.”

 Now the author of Hebrews from Hebrews 1 all the way through Hebrews 10 has focused on the superiority of Jesus Christ; and he is back at it again here in this passage, focusing on the perfection of the work of atonement that Jesus Christ has done. You see in the introduction that I have listed basically the three things that He has done in this passage. First, he points out the ineffectiveness of the old covenant sacrificial system. Remember he is writing to people who are being tempted to leave Christianity and go back to Judaism. Very likely one of the reasons that they are tempted to do that is that they sort of miss the sacrifices and the ceremony from the worship. Christian worship is simple. It is spiritual. It is taken up with the reading of scriptures and the praying of prayers and the singing of songs with grace in the heart, and the hearing of the word. And they kind of miss the ceremony of the old covenant worship and especially the sacrifices that went along with that.

So the author of Hebrews wants to point out to them that those Old Testament sacrifices, considered simply in themselves, apart from the work that Jesus came to do, do not forgive sins. He wants to stress those Old Testament sacrifices, however glorious that ceremony may have been, those sacrifices did not forgive sin. He is very emphatic about that in verse 4.

Then he goes on to argue that the sacrifice of Christ was provided by God to do what God never intended those Old Testament sacrifices to do. He wants to tell us, “Look, when I say that the Old Testament sacrifices were not able to forgive sins, I am not telling you that God made a mistake. I’m not telling you that God set up the sacrificial system and then said ‘Oops, it doesn’t work to forgive sins.’” He is telling you that God set up that sacrificial system deliberately to point forward to the one true sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ. I want to make that clear.

Then finally, he tells us how Christ, through His obedience in His death (he keeps repeating that beautiful phrase “I have come to do Thy will), so the stress is on the whole of Christ’s obedience and particularly that act of obedience in His crucifixion. So He shows how Christ’s obedience in death brought about the realization of the things that had been promised in Jeremiah 31:34.

This is all I would like to look with you at tonight — these three things. You will see the outline fairly straightforwardly.  First, in verses 1-4 we have that section where he teaches us about the Old Testament sacrifices and why they were not able to effect forgiveness of sin.

In verses 5-10, he backs this up by an appeal to the Old Testament. He says not to think that he is just telling you something that we New Testament saints knew about. I am going to quote to you from the Psalms and I am going to show you that even the most exalted of Old Testament saints, David, in Psalm 40, knew that the Old Testament sacrificial system wasn’t able to bring you into fellowship with the living God, in and of itself.

Finally in verses 11-18, he makes it clear again that Christ’s work actually accomplished the union between God and His people that God had always been planning for and providing the way for in His way of salvation. 

 I. God designed the ceremonial system as a shadow.

Let’s look at these things together. First in verses 1-4. Here we see that Old Covenant sacrifices, the sacrifices that were set up in the time of Moses that were administered by the priests, those ceremonial sacrifices could not reconcile the sinner and God. We learn here that God’s very design for that sacrificial system was to be a foreshadowing of the real sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The author is arguing, especially here in verse 1, that God created those ceremonial sacrifices, the Day of Atonement, the regular offerings, He created those sacrifices as a prefiguring of the one real sacrifice that would be made by Jesus Christ. And so, he argues in the end of verse 1, that since the ceremonial system was a prefiguring, it was a foreshadowing of Christ’s sacrifice, because of that it is not able by itself to bring about either of two things: It can’t bring forgiveness of sins and it can’t bring you back into fellowship with God.  He states it very clearly. It can never by the same sacrifices, which they offer continually year by year, make perfect those who draw near. Over and over he will use that phrase “make perfect” to refer to forgiveness of sins.

      And then, of course, those who draw near to the Lord in sacrifice with a view to drawing near to the Lord in fellowship, the sacrifices, he is saying, are not able to do that in and of themselves. So the point of verse 1 is proven in verse 2.

      Look at verse 2, “Otherwise would they not have ceased to be offered.” In other words, if sacrifices had worked to forgive you from sins and to bring you into the presence of God, why did they need to be repeated, year after year after year?  Not just for a different set of people year after year as they are successively born, but for the same people over and over. If you lived to be 40 years, you would partake of maybe 25 or 30 of these ceremonies as you went down to Jerusalem with your family and observed these particular annual sacrifices.

      So the point is if those Old Testament sacrifices actually accomplished forgiveness, then (a) why were they repeated? and (b) why in the very re-offering of those sacrifices were the worshippers continually reminded of their sins? The effect, he is saying of going down to Jerusalem year and year for the Day of Atonement is to remind you that your sins still haven’t really been dealt with. So this reminder of sin was built into the essence of this repeated sacrificial ritual. This stands in stark contrast.

      If you will look at verse 3 you will see that it is really in contrast to something that Jeremiah says. But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins, year by year. Turn back to Hebrews 8:12, remember he has already quoted Jeremiah 31:34 in a fairly extensive passage. Look at Hebrews 8:12 and notice the words that he quotes. He says, “I will be merciful to their iniquities and I will remember their sins no more.” Now this is God’s promise to Jeremiah of a day that is going to come in which He is going to remember their sins no more.

      Contrast that those words in Hebrews 10;3: “But in those sacrifices there reminder of sins year by year.” In other words, the sacrificial system in its very repetition reminded the people of their sins. But the promise of the New Covenant is that God will remember those sins no more. So the author of Hebrews is saying that old system has now been outmoded. It has now been made obsolete by the finished work of the We know from Matthew and Mark, that He took them back to Exodus 24, “this is the blood of the covenant.” We know from Luke and from Paul that He took them back to Jeremiah 31, “this is the Lord Jesus Christ, which brings about the realization of that promise that God will remember those sins no more.

      So the grand concluding statement you see in verse 4 is this self-evident assertion that animal blood cannot accomplish forgiveness of sins. It cannot accomplish the cleansing of conscience and it cannot accomplish reconciliation with God. You see what he is saying. He is saying, “Think about it for a minute, people. Do you really think that the shed blood of animals can bring you back into fellowship with God when you have offended against Him morally. And His answer is, “Of course not.” The blood of animals cannot do that, and that is not why God set up the sacrificial system.

      Now we need to remember that early church scholars remind us that most converts to Christianity in the first century or so would have been members of some religion, whether it was Judaism or something else, that practiced sacrifices of some sort — usually animal sacrifice, but often material sacrifice too. So these people would be very used to religions that continued ongoing sacrifices. And the author of Hebrews is saying, “Let me tell you something very extraordinary and unique about Christianity. We are a religion of one sacrifice that is never repeated.” Now that is tremendously important news, because he is saying, “Look, to go back to the sacrifices of the Old Testament  is to turn by your back on the one sacrifice that matters. The ineffectiveness of the Old Testament ceremonial system in effecting a cleansing of conscience for the worshipper is proof that it looked forward to the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus Christ that actually accomplished forgiveness of sin.

      He says not to turn your back on the real sacrifice to go back to the repeated sacrifices. Now even if we are not people who participate in regular animal sacrifice, all of us who have been Christians very long have known what it is to wrestle with the issue of knowing the forgiveness of God for our own past sins. Some sins that we have committed have so touched us with a sense of how maddening and saddening it is that we have done those sins, it is really hard to let them go. What we often try and do in order to deal with those sins is attempt to atone for those sins in some way ourselves. In fact, that language has worked its way into our popular speech. I don’t whether you witnessed any of the note taking of the news of the Million Man March on Washington DC a couple of years ago that was organized by Farrakhan, but do you remember the language that was constantly spoken?  What was he saying that had to be done?  We have to make atonement. And every time I heard that I said you can’t make atonement. You are not capable of making atonement. We can’t make atonement for our sins. Only one can make atonement for our sins. See what a fundamentally view religion has the Nation of Islam as opposed to Christianity.

I’ve heard that language echoing in some corridors in Washington recently. “I’ve made a mistake and now I am going to have to atone for my sins.” Oh no, I can’t do anything to make up for those sins. I can’t erase them by any action or good doing that I do in the future. I have to depend entirely upon one sacrifice, offered once for all, which is the end of all sins. That is a radical concept. We really should wallow in that for a little bit. We ought to revel in the glory of that, recognizing that there is nothing I can do about my sins. Having committed that sin, there is nothing I can do to take it back or correct it on my own.  I can only flee to Christ and He has provided a sacrifice for that sin upon which I trust, upon which I depend. Therefore, I am made right with God. It is an incredibly revolutionary idea and it is the very core of the gospel. The author of Hebrews is arguing that point right here. He is saying we don’t have repeated atonement sacrifices, we have one. 

II. Christ, therefore, came into the world as the real sacrifice.

And then he goes on to argue that from the Old Testament. If you look at verses 5 through 10, he is going to point you right back to Psalm 40:6-8. Basically his argument goes like this. He is saying, “Now look, what I’ve just said may have shocked some of you Jewish people listening to me. So I want you to understand what I have just said is not just my opinion, the opinion of a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ following in the era of the New Covenant after Pentecost. But this is the opinion of David. So he takes you right back to Psalm 40 and gives you those words that David once spoke. “Sacrifice and offering you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me and whole burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will.’” Now David is basically saying that he recognizes that there is deficiency in the ceremony sacrifices themselves. Those sacrifices were not able to adequately express his devotion to God. So David comes up with this statement, “I delight to do your will.” Basically he is saying, “Lord, I know it is more important to You I delight in doing Your will and give myself to You in worship than it is for me to simply go through the motions of offering up sacrifices.”

Now you recognize that kind of argument because you hear it in all the later prophets. Israel had settled into a formal pattern of religion where they were very faithfully offering sacrifices. But they were not giving the Lord their hearts. They did all the things that God said to in the Law, but they didn’t do any of them with their hearts. So the prophets over and over said to Israel, “He doesn’t want your sacrifice, He wants your heart.” That was an absolute contrast. It was a relative contrast, but it was said in absolute terms. At that time it was not an abolition of the sacrificial system. It was simply stressed that God wants you to do those external rites of the sacrifices, but He wants you to do it with the whole heart.

But David goes a step further here. He says, “Lord, I know the only adequate expression of my devotion for You, my delighting in Your will, in my having the Law written in my heart and just loving to do Your will.” Now that was true as far as it went. As you recall, David  had his sins and moral shortcomings. David couldn’t live up to the billing about which he spoke. In fact, only one person could live up to the billing about which David was speaking in Psalm 40:6-8, and that’s the Lord Jesus Christ who did delight to do the Lord’s will and, in fact, He did it. He did it perfectly.

So David’s words cannot ultimately be fulfilled in David. They have to look forward to David’s son, David’s lord, the Lord Jesus Christ. So David’s words, the author of Hebrews said, show us that David knew (a) that the ceremonial law was not an adequate expression of our love for God, our fellowship with Him, our devotion with Him; and that someone was going to have to come and do the Lord’s will in order for us to have fellowship with God forever. And that someone, of course, is the Lord Jesus Christ, our great high priest.  

III. Christ’s work effects the new covenant.

And that leads him to the third section of his argument in verses 11-18. He states very emphatically that Christ’s work effects the New Covenant. The New Covenant promises of Jeremiah 31 had promised that there was going to come a day when we would experience the complete justification of sins, that God would bring about a day when sins would be dealt with in such a way that our consciences would actually be cleansed and that we would be able to have assurance of salvation, a full and rich assurance based on the work of God.

The promise was beautifully made in Jeremiah 31:31-34, and the author of Hebrews is saying, “Let me tell you this. It was in Jesus Christ and in death that that promise was fulfilled.” He says, “The Old Testament priests, they had to stand when they were ministering in the temple year after year symbolizing their work was not over. When you are out in the yard standing and raking, then all the leaves are not down yet and all the leaves aren’t bagged yet. But when you are sitting down inside, there has been a reprieve from the work. The author of Hebrews says the Lord Jesus Christ isn’t standing. He has already taken His seat at the right hand of God indicating that His work of atonement is over. He has sat down from that work of atonement. He has now taken His seat at the right hand of God and the only thing He is waiting for now is the day when all His enemies are vanquished. He is not waiting for the day when He does the work for fin sins, He is waiting for the day when His enemies are finished. That is the only thing He is waiting for now; and, therefore, the author of Hebrews wants you to know that that means that the promise made in Jeremiah 31:34 has come to fulfillment in Jesus Christ.

Christ has brought about the realization of the central promises of the New Covenant. Those promises come in in a package. It’s a two-part promise, and you will see it in the quotation he gives. Look at verse 16. “This is the covenant 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.”

So what is at the heart of the New Covenant promises?  A people whose hearts are hearts for God. They have His will written on them. They are being made holy. They are being sanctified. They are being conformed to the image of God. They are being formed in the image of Christ. That is one thing that is promised in that prophecy. And the author of Hebrews is saying, “Look, when you look up and see Christ at the right hand of God, you know that promise has come to fruition in the lives of His people.

And secondly he goes on to say in verse 17, “And their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.” And he goes on to say in verse 18, “Where there is forgiveness of these things, there is no longer any offering for sin.” He says that in Jesus Christ, full and final and perfect and complete forgiveness of sins has been achieved.

Now you see, the whole force of his argument is “Why in the world would you want to leave that and go back to a religion, any religion, that suggests to you that you need to offer sacrifices, week after week, month after month, year after year? Or any religion that suggests that you have to somehow atone for your past sins when that atonement has already been found. For everyone who will trust in Jesus Christ because of His completed work, He is saying “Friends, don’t turn your back on that because anything other than that is less than that and worse than that.”

May the Lord help us to cling to Christ.  Let’s pray. 

“Lord, we thank You for the finished work of the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s so grand it is hard to get our heads around. But I pray that we would understand it enough tonight to sing praise quietly in our hearts and to live in quiet adoration and gratitude for the grace that we have found in Christ. We don’t deserve it. We haven’t earned it. We haven’t worked for it. We have been given it freely because of Your love. And that is the best news that anyone has ever heard. Thank You for it. In Jesus’ name. Amen.”

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