God required OT saints to offer sacrifices with him as means of temporary forgiveness. These sacrifices themselves were imperfect, and they did nothing to change the heart of the one offering the sacrifice. They did not provide full atonement (10:4, 11), but rather a temporary, legal satisfaction of immediate wrath.1 They could not cleanse sin, but they could “sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh” (9:13). Although these OT sacrifices were limited, they served as “copies” (9:23) of the perfect, complete sacrifice that was to come in the person of Jesus Christ.
In contrast, 12:24 directs the reader’s attention to “the sprinkled blood” (αἵματι ῥαντισμοῦ) of Jesus as the basis for NT worship. This idea of sprinkling is intricately tied to the ratification of the covenant and harkens back to the sprinkling that ratified the old covenant (9:19-21). Yet the blood is a mere metonymy for the whole of Christ’s sacrificial death, which is made clear by its comparison to another violent murder of an innocent victim—that of Abel. According the Hebrews, Abel “is still speaking, although he died” (11:4), and yet the blood of Christ “continues to speak more effectively” (12:24) as a final sacrifice of atonement that makes worship possible. This sacrifice of Christ is an act of grace rather than vengeance as Abel’s had been.
Christ is not only the sacrifice, however; he is also the priest who offers the sacrifice, and interestingly, according to Hill, “the priestly ministry of Jesus Christ is developed in the NT only in the book of Hebrews.”2 The author highlights this truth as one of the first descriptions of the Son of God in 1:3, noting that after Christ made “purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” The term “purification” (καθαρισμὸν) is most often used in the NT to refer to ritual cleansing, yet in this case it has direct reference to the removal of sin by the sacrifice of Christ.3 This act of offering one sacrifice and then sitting is in stark contrast to the work of OT priests who had to offer continual sacrifices (10:11-12). The author reiterates this fact in 7:27: “He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself.” Their sacrifice did not remove sin, but Christ’s did. The author of Hebrews speaks of this act of removing sin completely several times throughout the book. He made “propitiation for the sins of the people” (2:17); his sacrifice ensured that God would remember the sins of his people no more” (8:12; 10:17); he was “offered once to bear the sins of many” (9:28); he “offered for all time a single sacrifice for sin” (10:12); he made an “offering for sin” (10:18); he “appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (9:26); his death brought redemption from transgression (9:15). Throughout the book, the author stresses that the Old Covenant could not remove sin, but now Christ has accomplished full atonement (10:2, 4, 6, 11).
Once again, the author portrays Jesus Christ as the bridge between physical and metaphysical realities. Christ is able to serve as the high priest of his people because he was both “made like his brothers in every respect” (2:17), and, having “passed through the heavens” (4:14), he “is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man” (8:1-2). There he entered, “not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption” (9:12). Physical beings would not be able to worship a metaphysical God without a mediator who is both physical and metaphysical; in this sense, as Torrance explains, “the real agent in all true worship is Jesus Christ. He is our great high priest and ascended Lord, the one true worshiper who unites us to himself by the Spirit in an act of memory and in a life of communion, as he lifts us up by word and sacrament into the very triune life of God.”4
- “The blood of slaughtered animals under the old order did possess a certain efficacy, but it was an outward efficacy for the removal of ceremonial pollution . . . . They could restore [the worshipper] to formal communion with God and with his fellow-worshippers” (F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, 201, 204.). See also John C. Whitcomb, “Christ’s Atonement and Animal Sacrifices in Israel,” Grace Theological Journal 6, no. 2 (1985): 208 and Hobart E. Freeman, “The Problem of the Efficacy of the Old Testament Sacrifices,” Grace Journal 4 (1963), 17. [↩]
- Andrew Hill, Enter His Courts with Praise: Old Testament Worship for the New Testament Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 152. [↩]
- Morris, “Hebrews,” 15. [↩]
- James Torrance, Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 17. [↩]