Studies in Hebrews, 1 & 2 Peter
16. Hebrews 9:15-23 - A Covenant Enacted by Blood
Our salvation was obtained, the author of Hebrews tells us, because Christ “has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant” (9:15). Under the first covenant, many external regulations defined sin. Christ set us free from that. He forgives any kind of sin, but he sets us free from the rituals that were important under the old covenant.
This new covenant could come about only through a better sacrifice — something far superior to animals. The author begins by using an illustration from the legal customs of the day. He uses the example of a will, because the Greek word for covenant could also mean a will. It was a contract that became valid only when someone died. “In the case of a will, it is necessary to prove the death of the one who made it, because a will is in force only when somebody has died; it never takes effect while the one who made it is living.”
The Sinai covenant also involved death — the death of animals. “This is why even the first covenant was not put into effect without blood. When Moses had proclaimed every command of the law to all the people, he took the blood of calves, together with water, scarlet wool and branches of hyssop, and sprinkled the scroll and all the people. He said, ‘This is the blood of the covenant, which God has commanded you to keep’” (quoting Exodus 24:5-8).
“The law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” The Law of Moses required blood in its rituals of cleansing (9:21-22), but drops of blood do not make anything physically clean. What the Israelites needed was a spiritual cleansing — an elimination of spiritual defilement, imperfection, sin, guilt and anything that kept them away from God’s purpose for them. They needed forgiveness.
Animal blood cannot change spiritual realities, and animal sacrifices cannot eliminate sin (10:4), but the old covenant nevertheless prescribed animal sacrifices for forgiveness. Just as the tabernacle pictured a heavenly reality, these animal sacrifices pictured a future death that would be effective in removing sin.
The earthly tabernacle had to be ritually purified by animal sacrifices, but the heavenly holy place required a better sacrifice (9:23). The spiritual distance between God and humans required a spiritual sacrifice — someone with a perfect conscience, totally without sin.
Author: Michael Morrison, PhD