Studies in Hebrews, 1 & 2 Peter
20. Hebrews 10:11-25 - Perfect Results
Perfect forever (verses 11-18)
Our acceptance by God does not depend on the performance of rituals (either ancient or modern) — it depends on what Christ has already done, and it is therefore guaranteed. This is contrasted with the ineffective work of the old covenant priests: “Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.” Was it an exercise in futility? No, it was a picture, a drama that was worth repeating until Christ fulfilled it.
“But when this priest [Christ] had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God.” The Levitical priests stood while they worked; Christ is able to sit (figuratively speaking) because his work is done. There will be more work in the future (verse 13), but he is sitting now, “for by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.”
The work of sanctification is done (verse 10), and it is still being done (verse 14). Christ is still working in our lives, but the work is based on the sacrifice that was done in the past, once for all time. He has completely cleansed us, qualified us to be in God’s presence. That does not change.
As evidence, he quotes Jeremiah 31:33 again, the prophecy of the new covenant: “This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.” This is the work now being done as we are in the process of “being made holy.”
Then our author skips down to the last part of Jeremiah 31:34: “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.” He draws this conclusion: “And where these have been forgiven, sacrifice for sin is no longer necessary.” This is the grand finale: Our sins are forgiven; there is no need for sin sacrifices. To us, this may seem a minor point, an anticlimax, something we take for granted. But to our author, this is a major point, the point he has been hammering away at for four chapters. The sacrificial system is not needed any more. The old covenant has been set aside. It never was effective, and Christ has set us free from it.
Apparently the audience of Hebrews found the sacrificial system attractive. It was a God-given pattern of worship, and the people saw no reason to give it up. Even if God allowed other forms of worship, wouldn’t it be better to stick to the original plan? Wouldn’t this assure us that we were doing something that God likes?
No, our author says. God does not necessarily want us to do something that he commanded for a different people centuries ago. He didn’t like it in Jeremiah’s day, or when Psalm 40 was written. The law was good for a time, but its time is past.
In the early church, when Jewish people first believed in Jesus as the Messiah, many of them continued to participate in the temple rituals, either in person or through the offerings collected in the synagogues. At first this seemed harmless, and the people were allowed to continue their customs. However, as time went on, it began to seem that the rituals were a competitor to Christ. People were looking to the rituals for assurance, rather than to Christ. In their minds, their relationship with God was based partly on their participation in the rituals. They probably thought, Doesn’t this make us more obedient, more pleasing to God? Even if the laws were optional, wouldn’t it be better to continue them? And, aren’t those who continue better than those who don’t? The rituals could easily lead to judgmentalism.
In response, our author argues, chapter after chapter, that the rituals are obsolete imitations. This is not the better way — this is the inferior way. Rituals do not achieve anything. Our standing with God is based on what Christ has done, and he has set aside the old covenant. Throughout the book, Christ is compared to various aspects of the old covenant, and Christ is always better. Does our author want his people to participate in the sacrifices and rituals? Probably not. Does he command them to quit? No, not directly, but he probably wants them to come to that decision themselves.
What he commands them is to look to Jesus. Old covenant rituals are ineffective. They are shadows — copies. Jesus is the reality, and he is fully effective. There is no need for obsolete rituals. They are not a badge of better Christianity — they are an unnecessary burden that can block our view of Christ.
Practical exhortations (verses 19-25)
Hebrews is a practical book. After each chapter or so of doctrinal explanation, the author will put in a “therefore,” and point out how the believers should respond to the truth about Christ. At several points in the book, the author says, “Therefore, let us do such and such.” At 10:19, after several chapters of doctrine, the author comes to an exhortation passage. This is at a climactic point in the book. It has five exhortations. Since the old covenant is done away, and since we are forgiven by Christ, what are we supposed to do?
The author begins these exhortations by reminding us that we have two major benefits in Christ: 1) “We have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus” and 2) “We have a great priest over the house of God.” Since we have these benefits, he says, we should respond in five ways:
1) “Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings” (verse 22). We should accept the cleansing that Christ has given us, and use it for its purpose: that we draw closer to God. The rituals of the old covenant symbolized separation; the coming of Jesus Christ emphasizes the approachability of God.
2) “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess” (verse 23). Christ is faithful toward us, so we must be faithful toward him, keeping him central in our thoughts.
3) “Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.” Notice the focus. It is not that we should do good deeds. That is true, but the focus here is on encouraging others to do good — and not just exhorting others, but thinking about how we might do it better. The good deeds will be multiplied. Our relationship with God will have results in the way we interact with each other.
4) “Not giving up meeting together” (verse 25). It seems that some first-century Jewish Christians were no longer meeting together. Perhaps they were pressured by the Jewish community. Perhaps they were disappointed that Christ had not yet returned. Perhaps they felt that Christianity was a “Gentile” religion. They were more interested in their Jewish distinctives than they were in Christ. So the author urges, Don’t drop out! If you don’t meet with one another, you can’t show love.
5) “But encouraging one another” (verse 25). The first-century Jewish Christians needed to encourage one another; mutual encouragement helps everyone stay in the faith. This advice is still true today. We need to encourage one another in the faith, and in doing good — “all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Christ will return, and “bring salvation to those who are waiting for him” (9:28) — and not just waiting, but working in faith as well.
Author: Michael Morrison, PhD