What Animal Blood Cannot Accomplish
“In these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (vv. 3–4).- Hebrews 10:1–4
If the original audience of Hebrews had been thinking about returning to a religious system that could accomplish what it pictured, their temptation to abandon Christ for the old covenant religion might have made sense. But as the author of Hebrews has been saying in various ways, the Levitical system of priests and sacrifices was inferior to what is now available in Jesus (e.g., Heb. 7:23–25; 8:6; 9:13–14). Today’s passage continues the argument, explaining why the Mosaic system is not a legitimate option any longer.
Hebrews 10:1–4 assumes teaching such as is found in 7:19 that “the law made nothing perfect.” Today’s passage builds on that statement, fleshing it out by giving evidence for the law’s imperfection and two reasons for its inadequacy. First, 10:2–3 notes that the Mosaic law and its priestly system are proved inadequate on account of the need for its sacrifices to be repeated. After all, if the sacrifices secured the forgiveness and cleansing God required, they would not have needed to be performed again and again. The fact that they were, verses 2–3 state, proves not only the sacrifices’ failure to accomplish cleansing but also makes the essence of those rituals, especially when divorced from Christ, a reminder that the sins of Israel remained and that something greater was needed to solve the problem of wickedness.
In turn, the repetition of the sacrifices points back to the reality of the Mosaic law as a “shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities” (v. 1). The Mosaic law was never meant to be the permanent solution to human sin and our estrangement from God. Of course, the law teaches many abiding truths, but the system as a whole was in place only to point us toward the greater reality, just as a shadow points us to the true object casting the shadow. The shadow was good for its time, encouraging in the people a hope for full and final forgiveness that would come with the advent of Christ, the goal of the Mosaic administration (see Gal. 3:15–29). But it is better to have the real thing that casts the shadow than the shadow itself. In Christ, the real thing has come.
Hebrews 10:4 says that the Levitical priesthood and the Mosaic system could not bring the reality of forgiveness because the blood of bulls and goats cannot take away sins. It cannot truly stand in for human sinners because it is not human blood. Only the blood of another human—the God-man Jesus Christ—can stand in for us.
John Calvin comments that the old covenant system was not useless. “The Jews, indeed, had in this a symbol and a pledge of the real cleansing; but it was with reference to another, even as the blood of the calf represented the blood of Christ.” This was all a part of God’s wise plan to get people ready for Christ. Let us thank the Lord for His wise plan, which points us to His sovereignty and to the comfort we have in knowing that He is in control of all.
Passages for Further Study