Studies in Hebrews, 1 & 2 Peter
18. Hebrews 10:1-4 - The Law Could Not Save Us
The book of Hebrews explains that Jesus Christ is the perfect priest and the perfect sacrifice. Chapter 10 concludes the center section of the book by discussing the perfect results of Jesus’ priestly work.
The law was not effective (verses 1-4)
The chapter begins with a conclusion: “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming — not the realities themselves.” This builds on chapter 9, which sketched the rituals of the Levitical high priest and stated that Jesus did far better, offering a perfect sacrifice (himself) in a perfect place (heaven). The Levitical rituals had to be continually repeated, but Jesus’ sacrifice was fully effective and therefore did not have to be done again.
Just as the tabernacle was a copy of the true holy place in heaven (8:5), so also the rituals were copies or shadows of the real sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The tabernacle and its rituals (all included in the word “law”) represented good things, but could not bring them about. The law talked about cleansing and forgiveness, but could not cleanse or forgive.
Are the “good things” already here, or are they yet future? The grammar in this verse could be understood in either way, but Hebrews 9:11 makes it clear: Christ is the “high priest of the good things that are now already here.” Forgiveness and cleansing and relationship with God are already given through Jesus Christ, and the new covenant has already been established (8:6). There are better things yet to come (9:28), but the author’s stress in chapter 10 is on things that Christ has already brought.
The law is a shadow, not the spiritual reality. “For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship.” No matter how many animals were killed, no matter how much water was used, the law could never achieve the forgiveness that the new covenant gives.
The law could not make people perfect; this implies that people are made perfect in the new covenant. However, the word “perfect” can create unrealistic ideas. Faith in Christ does not make people morally perfect. We still sin, and we still fall short of what we ought to be. The Greek word could also be translated as “complete,” and this may be a better translation. We are completely forgiven by Christ, completely cleansed, and therefore perfectly qualified to worship God, perfectly able to have a relationship with him.
The context shows what the author has in mind: the removal of sin (verse 4) and a cleansed conscience (verse 2), so that we can approach God to worship him (verse 1b). The author seems to view all of these as the same basic concept. The old covenant could picture forgiveness, but could not achieve it.
If the law could qualify the people for worship, then there would be no more need for sacrifices. If the sacrifices could achieve what they pictured, “Otherwise, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins.” The logic is this: If the sacrifices completely prepared people for approaching God, then further sacrifices would not be needed. The people would not have a guilty conscience, and would not feel any need to offer sacrifices for sin.
The law was inadequate, and the author implies that the new covenant gives what the old could not: a cleansed conscience. Through faith in the effectiveness of Christ’s sacrifice, we do not feel guilty. Rather, we feel forgiven, cleansed, and accepted by God. Rather than being excluded from the holy place, we are invited in.
The author then summarizes the argument against the old covenant system: The sacrifices, instead of cleansing the people, “are an annual reminder of sins. It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” A physical substance, such as blood, cannot remove a spiritual problem. The old covenant was designed to picture forgiveness; it was not designed to bring it.
The Old Testament saints were forgiven their sins, but it was based on faith and God’s grace, not because they had paid a big enough price or earned it. Forgiveness was available, but it was not through the covenant rituals. The sacrifices had a shadow of forgiveness — they spoke about forgiveness and they pictured forgiveness — but they were not the way that forgiveness actually comes.
Author: Michael Morrison, PhD