Forgiveness, Atonement, Blood
Your wedding day is supposed to be a day that you remember for the rest of your life. Because of this, many couples hire photographers and videographers to document the day so they can look back years later and remember it. Typically, those photos and videos are treasured by the couple. Imagine that a couple who was recently married and when their photographer showed them the photos, they told him that they wanted to retake them. They wanted to get all dressed up again and reenact the photos. What would prompt that kind of reaction?
I can only imagine two situations where a couple would want to have their wedding photos retaken. The first is a couple that has been married for a long time and thinks it would be funny to replicate the photos many years later. Imagine the Best Man, who had a mullet at their wedding, who is now bald, and the little kids who were the flower girl and ring bearer who are now fully grown. I can see where a couple might want to reenact their photos for a reason like that. But for a couple who was recently married, the only reason they would want to retake their wedding photos is if their first photos weren’t good enough—if somehow the photographer failed to capture memories of the day. A couple who is happy with their wedding photos doesn’t want to go back and have them retaken.
Believe it or not, there are parallels between wedding photos and the blood sacrifices we read about in the Bible. Like a couple whose wedding photos weren’t up to snuff, the sacrifices in the Old Testament were repeated over and over again, because they really weren’t sufficient to fully cleanse people of their sin. Jesus’ sacrifice is, in a sense, like the photos from a master wedding photographer. Just as there would be no need to retake photos that were perfect, there is no need to offer additional sacrifices, because Jesus’ sacrifice was absolutely perfect.
Old Covenant Sacrifices
Hopefully you recall the approach the writer of Hebrews has been taking over the last couple of chapters. He has been comparing Jesus to many different things to show that Jesus is superior to everything that had come before. He compared Jesus to Moses, Jesus’ priesthood to the Jewish priesthood laid out in the Old Testament, and last week we looked at how the New Covenant initiated by Jesus is superior to the Old Covenant.
In our passage this morning, the writer of Hebrews compares the sacrifices that the Jews offered under the Old Covenant to the sacrifice that Jesus offered under the New Covenant. He continues to follow the same pattern, helping us to see how much greater Jesus’ sacrifice is than the sacrifices offered by the priests under the Old Covenant. In fact, we will see that the whole point of the sacrifices under the Old Covenant was to be a foreshadowing of the perfect sacrifice that would come through Jesus.
In order for us to understand the comparison, we have to go back a little bit remember how the Old Covenant sacrifices worked. God gave the Jews instructions on how to present various sacrifices to Him. There were sacrifices you could offer for thanksgiving, sacrifices that you could offer to show your devotion, and there were sacrifices you were to offer to pay for your sin.
The focus in this passage is on the sin sacrifices. The sacrifice that the author seems to have in mind is the sacrifice on the Day of Atonement. This was an important day in the Jewish year, because it was a day when the people were to go before the Lord and seek atonement for their sins. The High priest would sacrifice a bull for his own sin, then take its blood and sprinkle it throughout the tabernacle. He would then sacrifice a goat for the sin of the people and sprinkle its blood throughout the tabernacle. There was a second goat, and the sins of the people were symbolically transferred to this goat, which was then led out into the wilderness and left to die.
This was only one of the sin sacrifices that were required under the Old Covenant. There were also sacrifices that the people were to offer for themselves at other times during the year. They often involved the sacrifice of a goat or a ram, or for a family that was poor, they could sacrifice two birds.
The Necessity of Blood
One of the things that all of the sacrifices for sin shared in common was that they had to be blood sacrifices. Blood was a central part of the Old Covenant from the very beginning. The writer of Hebrews points out that when the law was given, Moses instituted it by sprinkling blood over the people and even the book of God’s law. Later, when the tabernacle was constructed, it was purified by having blood sprinkled over everything. Add to that the sacrifices that people would make for their sins, and you see that everything in the Old Covenant revolved around blood. Listen to what one commentator said about this connection.
During the thousand-plus years of the Old Covenant, there were more than a million animal sacrifices. So considering that each bull’s sacrifice spilled a gallon or two of blood, and each goat a quart, the Old Covenant truly rested on a sea of blood. During the Passover, for example, a trough was constructed from the Temple down into the Kidron Valley for the disposal of blood—a sacrificial plumbing system!
Why the perpetual sea of blood? For one main reason—to teach that sin demands the shedding of blood.
This is exactly the conclusion that the writer of Hebrews arrives at as well,
For without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness. (Hebrews 9:22b, NLT)
That begs the question, why can there be no forgiveness without the shedding of blood? Why does sin demand the shedding of blood? Why did God demand such a gory sacrifice? God didn’t require a blood sacrifice because he was cruel but because it was necessary. Sin brings death, and the sacrificial system was intended to be a vivid reminder of that truth.
Think back to the Garden of Eden. God told Adam that they could eat the fruit of any tree in the garden with one exception. He told them that if they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil then they would die. (Genesis 2:17) Later, when Adam and Eve did eat from that tree, everything changed. They didn’t drop dead on the spot, but their relationship with God changed. They experienced a spiritual death, and they also found out that they would now also face a physical death, something with which they had no experience. And as they were banished from the garden, God killed animals to make clothing for them. (Genesis 3:21) In a sense, this was a blood sacrifice that would remind them that sin always brings death.
I think this was the goal of the sacrificial system. God wanted the people to remember that sin brings death. Sacrificing an animal and shedding its blood was a vivid reminder that sin carries consequences with it. The sacrificial system was intended to help us to see that we cannot escape the consequences of wrongdoing. Ultimately sin always brings death.
So under the Old Covenant, everything had to be purified with the blood of an innocent animal, which had been killed for the sin of the people. The bloody mess that the people witnessed under the Old Covenant reminded them of a simple truth—sin brings death, and without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sin.
The Better Blood of Jesus
Having set the groundwork for our understanding of the necessity of a blood sacrifice, the writer of Hebrews then goes on to explain that when Jesus died on the cross for our sin, He was offering a blood sacrifice as well, but that His sacrifice was far superior to the animal sacrifices offered by the Jews. We see three reasons that Jesus’ sacrifice was superior.
First, Jesus’ sacrifice came from himself, not from innocent animals. Look at what verse 12 says,
With his own blood—not the blood of goats and calves—he entered the Most Holy Place once for all time and secured our redemption forever.
Under the Old Covenant, the priests would slaughter an innocent animal as a way of paying for the sins the people had committed. They needed to slaughter an animal because animals were innocent, they had no guilt of their own. No human being was innocent, not even the priests—which was why they needed an animal sacrifice. Jesus, however, was innocent. He did not need a sacrifice, he became the sacrifice!
When we think about it, we see that Jesus’ sacrifice was substantially different from the animal sacrifices offered under the Old Covenant.
- He willingly chose to lay down his life. The animals didn’t get to choose whether to die or not—they were merely subject to the decision of their owners. Jesus could have chosen not to sacrifice himself, but he gave up his life anyway.
- He understood what he was doing. The animals that were sacrificed had no concept of why they were being sacrificed, they were simply victims of circumstance. Jesus knew exactly what He was doing. It was because He understood what His death would accomplish that He gave Himself as a sacrifice
- His sacrifice was loving. Animal sacrifices were compelled by the law—you had to do them. Jesus was under no obligation to offer himself as a sacrifice, but He chose to do so anyway. He chose to sacrifice Himself because of His love for us.
Second, Jesus’ sacrifice provides a cleansing the animal sacrifices could not. We see this in verses 13-14,
For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.
We read that while the animal sacrifices provided some measure of cleansing from sin, such cleansing was only a surface cleaning. It didn’t deal with the root problem. Jesus’ sacrifice goes deeper, and purifies us to our core.
Think of it kind of like a water source that is contaminated. There are two ways to deal with the contamination. One is to purify each glass of water that you drink individually. You are mitigating the problem and enabling yourself to drink the water, but the root problem is still there, and every glass of water is going to need to be purified. The other way to approach the problem is to remove the contamination at the source. When you purify the source of the water, every glass is now clean, and that purification is only needed once.
The same is true with Jesus’ sacrifice. Just as it takes more money and effort to purify a water source than it does to purify a glass of water, it requires a much more costly sacrifice to deal with the root problem of our sin. The blood of bulls and goats could only bring a temporary purification; it required the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring complete purification. Jesus’ sacrifice deals with our sin problem at its source.
Third, Jesus only needed to offer his sacrifice once for all. Look at verses 24-26.
24 For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. 25 Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, 26 for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.
This is the logical conclusion when you realize that Jesus’ sacrifice dealt with the root problem. Because He dealt with the root problem, it means that there is no need to keep offering sacrifices.
The animal sacrifices of the priests were rituals that were repeated over and over, year after year. Jesus does not need to repeat his sacrifice, because it was sufficient once and for all. From a practical perspective, it also means that we don’t need to add anything to Jesus’ sacrifice—it is already perfect. So many Christians have the mindset that Jesus paid the penalty for their sin, but that they need to do their part to finish the job. That isn’t the case! Our salvation is not dependent upon our good deeds, or our church attendance, or the amount of money we give to the Lord, or how much we serve in the church. We are saved only because of Jesus’ sacrifice for our sin.
So, does that mean that Christians shouldn’t do those things? Of course we should do those things—we don’t do them to earn salvation, but we do them as a way of honoring the Lord whom we love and who loves us enough to die for us. It’s kind of like being a parent—you don’t have to sacrifice for your children and make time for your children in order to be a parent, but you naturally do those things because you love your kids.
In the same way good deeds are a part of the Christian life. When we become believers, our priorities naturally change. We make time for worship, we tithe to the Lord regularly, we seek to live lives that please God. But we are not saved because we do these things. We do these things because we are saved by the blood of Jesus Christ. We naturally do these things because of our love for the Lord.
Most people would rather not talk about sin and sacrifice, because it makes us uncomfortable. Many bristle at the idea that God would demand the death of someone innocent as payment for sin. These people argue that God, being all powerful, should simply overlook the sin, pardon us, and offer us forgiveness. But we inherently know that’s not possible.
William Barclay says that even human forgiveness has a price. When a son or a daughter goes astray, their parents might forgive them, but that forgiveness is costly—it is paid for in tears, in the graying of hair, in lines on your face, and in pain in your heart. Human forgiveness always has a price. Why should Divine forgiveness be different?
Listen to Barclay’s conclusion,
Forgiveness is never a case of saying: ‘It’s all right; it doesn’t matter.’ It is the most costly thing in the world. Without the shedding of the heart’s blood, there can be no forgiveness of sins….Where there is forgiveness, someone must be crucified.
This truth is at the center of the Christian faith. As a result, there are several practical things we should remember.
First, Our sin is costly. Until we grasp the seriousness of our own sin, we can never understand the magnitude of Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf. Once we begin understand what our forgiveness cost, we begin to see how much Jesus must love us in order to take that penalty upon himself.
Second, We are forgiven because of Jesus’ blood, not because of our goodness. Jesus has made it possible for everyone to be saved by His blood. All that is required of us is to trust in the sufficiency of His sacrifice. If we will do that, we will be saved. This means we have to give up any illusions that we can somehow merit salvation by the good things we do, and instead, simply follow the Lord in faith, remembering that even in the times when we mess up, forgiveness is ours through Jesus.
Finally, We should be motivated to live in a way that honors the Lord. We are not saved by obedience to the law, but obedience is a way of honoring the One who has given so much on our behalf. When we understand the penalty Jesus had to endure by our disobedience, we strive to live in a way that honors our Savior.
This passage reminds us that Jesus’ sacrifice is far superior to the sacrifices offered under the Old Covenant. Under the Old Covenant it was possible to be right with God one day, and then be separated from Him the next. The New Covenant secured by the blood of Jesus is different. We do not have to worry from day to day whether we are right with God or not. Forgiveness is ours, no matter how badly we mess up.
So stop trying to earn your salvation, no sacrifice you could offer the Lord could possibly compare to the one Jesus has already offered on your behalf. When we refuse to trust in His sacrifice and insist on going it alone, we minimize what He has done for us.
It’s kind of like going back and trying to retake your wedding photos. If the first set of photos was sufficient, there is no need to do them over again. Since Jesus’ sacrifice is sufficient, there is no need for us to keep trying to pay for our sin—it’s already been paid for. Instead, we can focus on living our lives in a way that demonstrates our love and trust of the One who has done what we could not. We won’t be perfect at this, just as no parent is perfect at showing love to their children. The great news is that we don’t have to be perfect—Jesus was perfect for us.
 Hughes, R. Kent. Hebrews: An Anchor for the Soul. Vol. 1. Preaching the Word. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1993.
 Barclay, William. The Letter to the Hebrews. The New Daily Study Bible. Louisville, KY; London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002.