Posts Tagged 'Atonement'

Cities of Refuge


It’s entirely possible that the author of Hebrews had Numbers 35 in the back of his mind when he wrote this:

God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope set before us may be greatly encouraged. (Hebrews 6:18 NIV)

The cities of refuge described in Numbers 35 are typical of the hope we have in Jesus Christ. It might well be that the prophet Isaiah somehow understood this:

And a man shall be as an hiding place from the wind, and a covert from the tempest; as rivers of water in a dry place, as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land. (Isaiah 32:2 AV)

How can “a man,” specifically Jesus Christ, be like a city? Let’s take a look these cities of refuge within the context of Numbers 35.

Looking after the Levites

Instruct the people of Israel to give to the Levites as their inheritance certain cities and surrounding pasturelands. These cities are for their homes, and the surrounding lands for their cattle, flocks, and other livestock. (Numbers 35:2, 3 TLB)

The last three chapters of Numbers are important because they make it as clear as possible the extent of the land that God gave to Israel. They serve to underscore the eternal nature of God’s gift. God gave the land to Israel as an eternal possession. There’s a lot talk today about who actually owns the land present-day Israel is sitting on, but regardless of what politician says what to whom, that land belongs to Israel and nothing is going to alter that.

And then there were the Levites. You’ll recall that when Israel left Egypt, God took the firstborn of all life in Egypt except for those of the Israelites. Later on, Israel found out they owed God their firstborn. He asked for the Levites instead; they would all belong to Him. The Levites were to be dedicated to the service of God, as such they had to be treated differently. All the tribes of Israel were given their allotment of land except for the Levites. They were given cities to live in all across the Promised Land. This scattering of the Levites is fleshed out a little more in Joshua 21, but for now there is a lesson to be learned. In this action, God is literally scattering the savor of the Levites’ ministry all across the land. These people were privileged to not only walk close to God by serving Him in His sanctuary, but they also walked among the people. The Levites were a living example and reminder of God’s Covenant, Law, and testimony before the people. They also served as a constant reminder of the intimate relationship of God’s written Law and the workings of His grace. We’ll see that six of the Levite cities were designated as places of refuge for the one who accidentally killed another. That manslayer could run into one of these cities and plead to God for mercy.

God’s righteousness

In this way the land will not be polluted, for murder pollutes the land, and no atonement can be made for murder except by the execution of the murderer. You shall not defile the land where you are going to live, for I, Jehovah, will be living there. (Numbers 35:33, 34 TLB)

The joining together of God’s righteousness and His grace is illustrated in a powerful way in the cities of refuge. These two verses give us the principles behind these special cities. When a human being was slain, whether on purpose or by accident, blood was shed. This was something God took very seriously. Shed blood polluted or defiled the entire land. The only way to cleanse the land of that awful blight was by executing (shedding the blood) of the murderer. This was vitally important because of the nature of God’s special relationship with Israel. God would be dwelling in the midst of the land. The defilement of murder needed to be removed from the land; provision for legal expiation needed to be made, or it would be impossible for God to remain in the land.

In other words, capital punishment as designed by God, was not primarily meant as a deterrent or as an expression of man’s justice, but of God’s righteousness. The Israelites were to learn something about the nature of God and man in this law. Killing an animal was acceptable but murdering a human was not because a human being, not an animal, is created in the image of God. When someone murders another person, he is not only murdering that fellow human being, but he is murdering the image of God. That’s why the ultimate price has to be paid, because murder is the ultimate crime against both man and God.

God’s grace

So God’s righteousness would be satisfied with His law of capital punishment. This, by the way, goes back further than Moses, to the days of Noah. The one law God gave Noah after the Flood was this:

And murder is forbidden. Man-killing animals must die, and any man who murders shall be killed; for to kill a man is to kill one made like God. (Genesis 9:5, 6 TLB)

The New Testament reiterates the right of the state in cases like this Romans 13:

For the policeman does not frighten people who are doing right; but those doing evil will always fear him. So if you don’t want to be afraid, keep the laws and you will get along well. The policeman is sent by God to help you. But if you are doing something wrong, of course you should be afraid, for he will have you punished. He is sent by God for that very purpose. (Romans 13:3, 4 TLB)

But what about an accidental killing? God’s solutions were the so-called cities of refuge.

In all, there were six cities so designated, three on each side of the Jordan River. A person guilty of manslaughter, not murder, could find a place of safety and refuge in any one of these cities. The question naturally arises: A refuge from whom?

If a relative of the dead man comes to kill him in revenge, the innocent slayer must not be released to him for the death was accidental. (Numbers 35:5 TLB)

While this sounds like a “familial bounty hunter,” this relative figures prominently in Hebrew law and history. He is goel, the Avenger of Blood. He was the representative from the victim’s family charged with making sure justice was carried out against the murderer of the family member.

This Avenger of Blood was allowed to track down the murderer and deliver him to the authorities for execution. This was providing the testimony of two or three eyewitnesses could confirm the guilt of the murderer.

However, never put a man to death on the testimony of only one witness; there must be at least two or three. The witnesses shall throw the first stones, and then all the people shall join in. In this way you will purge all evil from among you. (Deuteronomy 17:6, 7 TLB)

Obviously the Avenger of Blood was not omniscient. He could be wrong. What if the person he was tracking didn’t kill the relative on purpose? That person, then, could find safety in a city of refuge.

These cities will be places of protection from the dead man’s relatives who want to avenge his death; for the slayer must not be killed unless a fair trial establishes his guilt. (Numbers 35:12 TLB)

…then the people shall judge whether or not it was an accident, and whether or not to hand the killer over to the avenger of the dead man. If it is decided that it was accidental, then the people shall save the killer from the avenger; the killer shall be permitted to stay in the City of Refuge; and he must live there until the death of the High Priest. (Numbers 35:24, 25 TLB)

Why was the accidental murderer required to remain in the city of refuge until the death of the high priest? The legal guilt of the unintentional slaying was ultimately expiated in the death of the high priest. Remember, the high priest was both the mediator and the representative of the people, so his death represented the legal justification of the accidental murderer. The scales of justice were balanced, expiation fulfilled, and the slayer was now free to return to his own home.

It’s a picture of Jesus

God’s system of justice is perfect. But there is much more at work here. The cities of refuge are really a perfect picture of Jesus Christ. The Bible applies this picture of the city of refuge to the believer finding refuge in God on more than one occasion. Here’s one that’s familiar to you:

God is our refuge and strength, a tested help in times of trouble. (Psalm 46:1 TLB)

The points of similarity between the cities of refuge and Jesus are stunning:

Both Jesus and the cities of refuge are within easy reach of the needy person; they were of no use unless someone could get to the place of refuge. Jesus is “as close as the mention of His Name.”

Both Jesus and the cities of refuge are open to all, not just the Israelite; no one needs to fear that they would be turned away from their place of refuge in their time of need. All who call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.

Both Jesus and the cities of refuge became a place where the one in need would live; you didn’t come to a city of refuge in time of need just to look around.

Both Jesus and the cities of refuge are the only alternative for the one in need; without this specific protection, they will be destroyed. Jesus is the only hope for the one being pursued by the Avenger of Blood.

Both Jesus and the cities of refuge provide protection only within their boundaries; to go outside meant certain death.

With both Jesus and the cities of refuge, full freedom comes with the death of the High Priest.

You can see there are many points of similarity between the cities of refuge and Jesus Christ. But there is one, glaring, crucial distinction between the two: The cities of refuge only helped the innocent, but the guilty can come to Jesus and find refuge.

And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me. (John 12:32 AV)



The Atonement that had been in God’s plan since eternity and foreshadowed throughout the Old Testament found its fulfillment in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the climax of God’s redemptive plan for man.

It’s a significant fact that the Gospel writers spend considerable time going into the details of Christ’s suffering and death, while spending virtually no time on the first 30 years of His life. Time and again they write of the Passion in the context of numerous Old Testament prophecies, showing that they considered the event of primary importance.

1. Atonement: Fact

The death of Jesus was no accident. He was not murdered. His life and ministry were not “cut short.” The truth is, the suffering and death of Jesus were not unfortunate surprises; Jesus was not “caught off guard.” He knew from the very beginning that His suffering and death were all part His destiny. He knew that He “must suffer.”

And he said, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” (Luke 9:22 NIV84)

Jesus knew He was no mere victim of blind fate. Without a doubt Jesus knew that He was the linchpin of God’s plan for the redemption of mankind.

At His baptism, Jesus and many others heard the stirring words: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:22 NIV84). These words were stirring because with one sentence, Jesus’ Sonship and His deity were confirmed in public. They were also the fulfillment of two prophecies:

I will proclaim the decree of the Lord:He said to me, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father. (Psalms 2:7 NIV84)

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations.” (Isaiah 42:1 NIV84)

The Servant mentioned in Isaiah 42 is the same Servant spoken of in Isaiah 53. In the latter chapter, He is the “Suffering Servant.” So even at His baptism, Jesus would have been aware of His identity (the Son of God and the Messiah), His mission, and His destiny (suffering and death). The baptism of Jesus could be regarded THE turning point in human history because at that moment, the sinless Son of God completely identified Himself with the sinful people He came to save. His work of Atonement began the moment He came up out of the waters of baptism.

Many times during His earthly ministry, Jesus talked to His disciples about His mission and His sufferings:

“…the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28 NIV84)

During the Last Supper, our Lord left His disciples with instructions on how to commemorate His atoning Work. The Communion Service Christians celebrate is not dissimilar to Passover, which the Jews celebrate.

The disciples, however, were unable to grasp the necessity and the scope of Jesus’ mission and words. It wasn’t until after the Resurrection and the Ascension that the divine light dawned on them.

2. Atonement: Necessity

Why did Jesus do what He did? Couldn’t God have found a less severe way to save mankind? The need for atonement is based upon two undeniable facts: God is holy and man is not. The result of these facts is that the two parties, God and man, cannot in any way co-exist in the same time and space.

God is absolutely holy in every way, from His character to His conduct. God as the great Creator of all, fashioned man and his world according to a set of very definite laws. We may think of the “law of gravity,” for example, but it goes even deeper than that. Consider Romans 2:14, 15–

Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them. (Romans 2:14-15 NIV84)

When God made man, He placed His set of laws into man’s innermost being. Whether man is aware of this or not or whether man acknowledges it or not, it is a fact. Because of this fact, all men are responsible for how they live their lives; they are responsible to the One who placed His laws in him.

For in him we live and move and have our being.’ (Acts 17:28 NIV84)

Sin has made it impossible for man to live by God’s laws imprinted on his heart. Sin has completely ruined the kind of relationship God wanted to have with His creation. Because God is holy, unrepentant human beings cannot be in His presence. Therefore, when unrepentant man dies, he is not allowed to be in God’s presence. He is, in fact, cast out of God’s presence forever.

God is not unfair in dealing with man this way. God is sovereign; He is the Creator. But beyond that, God has, through the ministry of His prophets and in His Word, made it clear that one who is righteous (like God) is unable to have fellowship with one who is unrighteous.

Do two walk together unless they have agreed to do so? (Amos 3:3 NIV84)

All sin is an act of rebellion against God; it is violence against the law of God under which man is to live. Sin separates man from God:

But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear. (Isaiah 59:2 NIV84)

Because unconverted man is a lawbreaker and that sin is, at its core, a frontal attack on God’s honor and holiness, there is no possibility for that man to have any kind of fellowship with His Creator. However, God still wants to have fellowship with him, therefore atonement must be made; that sinner must be made right.

If the New Testament teaches anything it’s that atonement is possible and necessary. It is possible, not because man is able to do it for himself but because God, in grace and mercy, makes it possible on his behalf. Man cannot atone for himself, so Jesus did it for him at Calvary. On the Cross, sins are atoned for, God’s honor restored, and His law satisfied.

3. Atonement: Nature

When we say, “Christ died for our sins,” we are talking about the essence of “atonement.” The very word means, “to cover.” What is covered? In the atonement of Christ, both the sins and the sinner are covered. When sin is covered, God no longer sees it and it is no longer a cause of His wrath.

Yet he was merciful;he forgave their iniquities and did not destroy them. Time after time he restrained his anger and did not stir up his full wrath. (Psalms 78:38 NIV84)

In this way the priest will make atonement for them, and they will be forgiven. (Leviticus 4:20 NIV84)

In reference to Leviticus 4:20, when the sacrificial blood was applied to the altar by the priest, the offerer was assured of the promises made to his forefathers:

The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt. (Exodus 12:13 NIV84)

According to numerous verses throughout the Old Testament, the effects of the sacrifice of atonement – the covering of sin – included the following:

Jeremiah 18:23; Isaiah 43:25; 44:22 – the sin was blotted out.
Isaiah 6:7 – the sin was removed.
Psalm 32:1 – the sin was cast into the depths of the sea.
Isaiah 38:17 – the sin was cast behind God’s back
Psalm 78:38 – the sin was pardoned.

All these components taken as a whole teach that the Old Testament atonement, which itself foreshadowed Christ’s ultimate Atonement, covered up a sinner’s sins, nullified their effects on both the sinner and on God, and made the sinner as if he had never sinned.

Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross has the same effects on all sinful men who by faith appropriate its effects. But in addition to “atonement,” there is an other part to Christ’s work on the Cross: propitiation.

God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished… (Romans 3:25 NIV84)

The phrase “sacrifice of atonement” is translated “propitiation” in other translations and carries with it the idea of “being brought near” to God. So then, Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross not only has the effect of covering up and removing the sin from the sinner, it brings man closer to God. How is this possible? It’s because Christ’s sacrifice, His propitiation, takes away that which causes God’s wrath: our sin. Access to God, the greatest of all privileges afforded mortal man, was bought at a great price: the precious Blood of Christ. And this was foreshadowed in the Old Testament. James Denney sums it up:

Just as in the ancient Tabernacle, every object used in worship had to be sprinkled with the atoning blood, so all parts of Christian worship, all our approaches to God, should consciously rest upon the atonement. They should be felt to be a privilege beyond price; they should be penetrated with the sense of Christ’s passion, and of the love with which He loved us when He suffered for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God.

The work of Christ was atoning. It was a propitiation. It was also substitutionary. The animal sacrifices in the Old Testament were substitutionary; they did on the altar what the Israelite could not do for himself. The altar represented God; the priest represented the sinner; the sacrifice was the Israelite’s substitute, which God accepted on his behalf.

Can you see how what Christ did was so similar? Christ did on His Cross what we could never do for ourselves. Christ, in His work, was both the Priest and the Sacrifice. When He offered Himself on the altar of His Cross and shed His precious blood, He bore our sins, literally not figuratively, lifting them off us and carrying them away from us. Jesus came between God and man, stood, as it were, in front of God’s wrath, absorbing it all so none of it could ever touch us. Never could there have ever been a more perfect sacrifice.

4. Atonement: Results

There are two big results of Christ’s Atonement. First, redemption. This comes from the idea of “buying something by paying a price.” Consider:

…just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Matthew 20:28 NIV84)

Our redemption was costly, it cost the Son of God His very life’s Blood. Many Christians take their redemption for granted, something that caused Paul to write this to the Corinthians:

Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies. (1 Corinthians 6:19, 20 TNIV)

Jesus taught something very profound when He said this:

What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? (Matthew 16:26 NIV84)

Our Lord taught that the soul – the essence of a person – could be lost and that there was no way it could ever be bought back. The Psalmist supports this teaching:

No one can redeem the life of another or give to God a sufficient ransom – the ransom for a life is costly, no payment is ever enough… (Psalm 49:7, 8 TNIV)

Every human being living without Christ is literally “owned” by sin; they have forfeited their very souls. They are eternally lost. These lost souls are what the Son of God came to save.

…the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Matthew 20:28 TNIV)

This was why Jesus came into the world: to lay His down His life as a ransom payment so that those who had forfeited their lives may get them back again.

The second great result of the Atonement is our reconciliation.

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5:18, 19 TNIV)

Sinful man is God’s enemy. Through the Atonement, we who were at war with God have been brought into a peaceful relationship with Him. The Atonement is like a great, eternal peace treaty between God and man.

It should be stressed that God’s anger was not such that He stood far off from the sinner waiting to have that anger assuaged. It wasn’t God that was reconciled to the sinner; the sinner was reconciled to God. God was the offended One, not man. God was the One who made the very first overture when Adam and Eve sinned: He clothed them; He reached out to them. God continues to reach out to sinful man today. God is the author of our atonement, our redemption, and our reconciliation.

Say to them, `As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, house of Israel?’ (Ezekiel 33:11 TNIV)



When Adam and Eve sinned, God promised atonement:

“And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” (Genesis 3:15)

This first promise is also the first prophecy and says that a descendant, referred to here as “her [Eve’s] offspring,” would do irreparable harm to the serpent, Satan. Just after God spoke these words, He gave Adam and Eve a practical illustration of the idea of “substitution”; that a sacrifice – a life for a life – would be needed to fulfill that promise:

The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them. (Genesis 3:21)

We have evidence that the first family understood God’s promise and illustration in the actions of Cain and Abel. The sons of Adam and Eve understood both the concept and the need for atonement. In Genesis 4 we see them offering their own sacrifices to the Lord. God rejected Cain’s offering, but He wasn’t condemning Cain, He was teaching a lesson. He spoke to Cain with all the patience of loving parent:

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.” (Genesis 4:6-7)

There was no anger in what God said in response to Cain’s offering. There was no punishment inflicted on him. What did God explain to Cain? If Cain continued in his present state – angry and downcast – he would be sinning. But if he would present a sin-offering, his sin would be pardoned. Cain’s offering needed to be more like that of his brother’s. Abel the man wasn’t necessarily any better than his brother, but his offering was. What was wrong with Cain’s offering? It was the result of HIS work, and God did not find it acceptable.

Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. (Genesis 4:2-3)

This was the lesson: sin is atoned for, not by our works of righteousness, but by God’s mercy. Forgiveness of sin is wholly a work of God; we cannot earn God’s pardon through our efforts.

Abel’s offering was acceptable because it was offered in faith, something we learn from a verse in the New Testament:

By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did. (Hebrews 11:4)

The death of Jesus is described in the same kind of language as the sacrifices of the Old Testament. For example, when John the Baptist referred to Jesus as “the Lamb of God,” everybody that heard him understood exactly what he meant. However, we who are living 2,000 on have no relationship to those words. Unless we have even a modicum of knowledge about the Old Testament idea of a life-for-a-life, those words, “the Lamb of God” have little or no power.

1. Atonement in the Old Testament: Concepts and Reality

The sacrifices in the Old Testament and the whole sacrificial system were types – examples – pointing God’s people to the perfect or ultimate Sacrifice, Jesus Christ. They were to prepare the people of God for the time when Christ would come to completely fulfill the first promise and prophecy of the Bible.

The whole idea of “atonement” and “sacrifice” was in no way an afterthought of God brought on by the Fall of man. In fact, Jesus Christ is described this way in Revelation 13:8–

...the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world. (Revelation 13:8b)

In other words, God’s plan of sacrifice was ordained in Heaven even before the creation of the material universe. When Jesus is referred to as “the Lamb of God,” God’s people would have immediately been reminded of their Passover Lamb, that was chosen several days before it was killed:

Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lamb for his family, one for each household. (Exodus 12:3)

Take care of them until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the people of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight. (Exodus 12:6)

Jesus Christ, like the Passover Lamb, was chosen before the creation of the world to be offered as the final Sacrifice for man’s sin.

He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake. (1 Peter 1:20)

When we understand this, we understand that Christianity is in no way a “new religion” that began with the coming of Jesus into the world 2,000 years ago but it is in reality a manifestation of God’s eternal plan. All the clues that pointed to Jesus scattered throughout the Old Testament were there to be seen by God’s people for generations.

Beginning with the very first animal sacrifices in Genesis, we see an innocent animal dying so that man’s guilt may be covered. That is the primary purpose of sacrifice: a covering for a guilty conscience. In fact, the word “atonement” means “to cover.”

But did the ancient people get what God was trying to teach them? The answer is obvious: yes, they did. Even though man took a very good and righteous concept, sacrificial worship, and perverted it, the fact that there sprang up religions all over the world that involved the killing of innocent creatures to appease a deity, shows that buried deep in the subconsciousness of all men is an understanding of “atonement.” All men seem to instinctively know that the God who made him has every right to kill him unless an acceptable offering is made. In behind the idolatries of every human religion and cult, is an understanding that there is a great “spirit” or a great god above all other gods who made man, gives and takes life, and demands atonement.

Paul makes it clear that at one time, all people on the earth knew God:

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. (Romans 1:21)

So just as fallen man still bears the image of God, marred as it may be, and the marks of his divine origin, so even religions, false and otherwise, with their sacrifices, bear some marks of an original Divine revelation from God to man.

2. Atonement in the Old Testament: Efficacy

Where the God-instituted sacrificial systems of the Old Testament (from Adam’s time to Noah’s time and finally to the Mosaic Covenant) effective? Where those who offered the prescribed sacrifices in the proper way pardoned?

The answers to these and other questions surrounding the Old Testament sacrificial system are found in the letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament. This letter was written to Hebrew Christians who were depressed and discouraged and tempted to return to their former religion, Judaism. In doing so, they would go back to the Temple and it’s animal sacrifices. The author of that letter did his best to persuade them to remain faithful, for to return to the Temple and it’s priests and animal sacrifices would be to exchange the reality for the shadow. The overall argument of Hebrews is that the Old Covenant was good as far as it went, but the New Covenant is better in every way.

The Old Testament sacrifices were good because that whole system proceeded from the heart and mind of God. They were good because they fulfilled a plan that originated in Heaven as part of God’s plan of redemption: they were a means of grace.

He shall burn all the fat on the altar as he burned the fat of the fellowship offering. In this way the priest will make atonement for the man’s sin, and he will be forgiven. (Leviticus 4:26)

As faithful Israelites participated in the various sacrifices, they were conscious of two things. First, repentance was not enough; it had to be accompanied by an outward act that showed the community of faith that sins where covered.

In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. (Hebrews 9:22)

If an Israelite claimed to have been forgiven, there had to be proof; one of his animals had to have been sacrificed.

Secondly, that outward act of sacrifice had to be accompanied by inward expressions of sacrifices; things like praise to God, and an attitude of humble thankfulness.

You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Psalms 51:16-17)

This was something that Solomon completely understood:

The Lord detests the sacrifice of the wicked, but the prayer of the upright pleases him. (Proverbs 15:8)

The Bible makes it plain that merely “going through the motions” in terms of offering the prescribed sacrifices were not at all acceptable to God.

However, Jesus Christ’s One sacrifice in the New Testament is better in every way. Faithful, thinking Israelites realized that their present means of sacrifice was not perfect. How could the blood of a mere animal compensate for the sins of a man, created in the image of God? Obviously, the offering had absolutely nothing in common in any way with the offerer and the shed blood of that animal had no power to do anything for anybody.

But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. (Hebrews 10:3-4)

The writer to the Hebrews, a Hebrew himself, understood that at best those animal sacrifices demanded by the Lord were a very temporary means of atoning for sin only until the perfect Sacrifice would come. The sacrifice of animals only covered the outward acts of sin but were of no spiritual value.

…the gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper. They are only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings–external regulations applying until the time of the new order. (Hebrews 9:9b, 10)

The very fact that these sacrifices had to be repeated over and over and over proved that they were far from perfect.

The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming–not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. If it could, 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. (Hebrews 10:1-2)

Thinking, faithful, and enlightened Israelites knew something better was coming their way. The prophet Jeremiah was one who knew the truth. He knew:

(a)  The people could never keep the Law because their sins were so deeply etched into their inner-most being :

Judah’s sin is engraved with an iron tool, inscribed with a flint point, on the tablets of their hearts and on the horns of their altars.” (Jeremiah 17:1)

(b)  Their hearts were desperately wicked and deceitful:

The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.Who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9)

(c)  That nobody was capable of changing their hearts any more than they were of changing their skin color:

Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil. (Jeremiah 13:23)

(d)  His people had long passed the point where sacrifices did any good:

What do I care about incense from Sheba or sweet calamus from a distant land? Your burnt offerings are not acceptable;your sacrifices do not please me.” (Jeremiah 6:20)

3. Atonement in the Old Testament: Some were justified

The Bible teaches that in spite of the limitations of the Old Testament sacrificial system, people were indeed saved before the atoning work of Christ. Abraham was said to have been justified by faith (Romans 4:23). Moses was glorified (Luke 9:30, 31) and Enoch and Elijah were translated. Many, many people who lived and died before the New Testament era were godly and true believers. How could they have been saved before Christ did His work on the Cross?

They were saved in anticipation of, and looking forward in faith to, the future perfect Sacrifice just as we, today, are saved in consideration of, and in looking back to, Christ’s past Sacrifice. Christ’s once-for-all Sacrifice was so powerful, it reached back in time and and reaches forward in time to save all those who, by faith, trust in His atoning work on their behalf.

Naturally, those true believers in the Old Testament did not enjoy the blessings of salvation afforded believers today. We enjoy the abiding presence of God through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, they did not. They did not enjoy the fullness of the gifts of the Spirit and they certainly did not have the completed revelation of God at their fingertips! Believers are so blessed today, and yet we fall into the exact same sinful and destructive thought patterns and behaviors the Israelites of the past did.



Hebrews 9:6—10; 10:1—18

In this letter to the Hebrews, its author has devoted many verses discussing the material surroundings in which various sacrifices took place. In the first five verses, we read about what was in the Holy Place and beginning with verse 6, the author moves on to the topic of the ministry of the earthly priests.

1. Inadequate sacrifices, Hebrews 9:6—10; 10:1—4

a. The earthly tabernacle, 9:6—10

The priestly duties on a day-to-day basis took place in what was known as “the outer room.” In this room took place their regular duties, which included things like burning incense, setting out the loaves of bread, and trimming the lamps. All that took place in this “outer room” concerned simple ritualistic worship. It was all very formal and cold and lacked the intimacy of what went on in the “Holy Place.”

Into the second room, the “Holy Place,” went the Levitical High Priest, alone, several times a day, ONE a year. Earlier in the wilderness, it was Moses who went into the “Holy Place,” and there he met with God face-to-face. When the High Priest went in, he went in representing all the people, symbolized by the breastplate he wore, on which were affixed precious stones, one for each tribe. In essence, the priest engaged in a “vicarious liturgy,” in that his mission was to make atonement for his sins and the sins of all the people. The sins he was atoning for were the “sins of ignorance.”

Going into the Holy Place was dangerous—very dangerous. The High Priest had to do everything just right, exactly as prescribed by the Law. In fact, it was considered so dangerous that, according to rabbinical teaching, the High Priest took care to keep his prayers short, so as “not to put Israel in harm.”

According to the author of Hebrews, it was the Holy Spirit’s purpose to take the pattern established by the Tabernacle/Temple worship services, and use it as an illustration to show how inadequate it really was.

This is an illustration for the present time, indicating that the gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper. (verse 9)

The reason this whole system was inferior was that in spite of how careful the priests and High Priest were in carrying out their duties, it was all ceremonial; nothing really changed in the people. For example, all the blood used never stopped the people from sinning. The scape goat, that symbolically carried the sins of Israel way out into the desert, symbolically separating those sins from the people, really served to illustrate how God separates our sins from us so that we never see them again. Yet, the people of Israel did see their sins over and over again for their consciences were never cleared. It was obvious there was nothing permanent about any of the OT sacrifices.

b. A shadow of good things, 10:1—4

The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. (verse 1)

Something else that was made clear in the inadequacy of the Law, was that the way to God was closed. Nobody could get close to Him, with the exception of the High Priest, and even that was no occasion for joy, but fear. Because of their sin, the people of Israel were locked out of a relationship with their God. Their hearts longed to be set free from those sins. Their situation reminds us of Charles Wesley’s powerful words:

Come, Thou long-expected Jesus,
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us;
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel’s strength and Consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear Desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.

Even though nothing in the OT sacrificial system did anything to free anybody from their sins, there was a purpose: it showed the people how holy and righteous God was and how sinful they were. In essence, all the ceremonies at the Tabernacle/Temple did was to remind the people how good God was and how bad they were. It made them long for something better. In that sense, it was merely a shadow of that “something better.”

What should be noted, though, is that at no time is Hebrews ever critical about the OT sacrificial system. All this letter does is point out how inadequate it was.

2. God’s perfect sacrifice, Hebrews 10:5—10

a. A divine sacrifice, verses 5—8

The writer of this letter always defers to Scripture to cinch his argument, and in these verses he does it again. The old way was powerless in dealing with the sin problem, therefore a new way needed to be provided. The citation from Psalm 40 gives the reason for the Incarnation, and the speaker is the second Person of the Trinity:

Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased. Then I said, ‘Here I am—it is written about me in the scroll—I have come to do your will, O God. (verses 5—7)

What was necessary for the forgiveness of sin was a sacrifice sufficient to atone for those for sins. That “body” for sacrifice had been prepared by God for Christ. In the Father’s eternal plan, the Son would be clothed with the flesh of man in order to offer Himself as the perfect, all-sufficient atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world.

The OT sacrifices were all substitutionary in nature, but what God really wanted was for the people to simply practice obedience to His revealed Word. In that, the Son excelled. So, here is why God’s “new way” was so superior to the “old way.” Jesus Christ was the perfect sacrifice and He offered Himself perfectly.

b. A willing sacrifice, verses 9, 10

Then he said, “Here I am, I have come to do your will.” He sets aside the first to establish the second. And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

The annual sacrifices were inadequate and unpleasing to God because the corresponding obedience from the people was missing. This, coupled with the Son’s completely willing obedience to offer Himself as the perfect atoning, substitutionary sacrifice, spelled the end of the old way. What Christ did was totally within the will of God so that no other way would ever be needed.

Another way to put this is that Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice is the foundation and the means of our sanctification because what He did He did willingly, in obedience to the Father’s perfect will. Behind the Incarnation was God’s plan that was actually recorded in Isaiah 53.

The sacrifice of Christ on the Cross was no martyrdom; it was the climax of an eternal plan. This is a very profound thought. At Creation, God gave man free will. Knowing what man would do with that free will, God had prepared beforehand a plan to deal with it. Calvary was not a surprise or a disappointment to God. The body, the life, the death, and the Atonement were all part of that great plan of God. We just benefited from it.

3. The results of Christ’s sacrifice, Hebrews 10:11—18

a. Christ seated at God’s right hand, verses 11—13

Every priest—not just the High Priest—worked all the time. They had duties to perform all day, every day. Their work was never done. But when Christ’s work was done, He was able to sit down at God’s right hand, traditionally a place of authority, because His redemptive work was finished. The contrasts between the ongoing work of the earthly priests with the finished work of our Heavenly Priest is stark and powerful. In the one case, the sacrifices go on and on and on, the blood of animals never stops flowing. The priests never, ever sit down. In the other case, Jesus Christ shed His blood, offereingHimself one time then sat down, His work finished. In the once case, the earthly High Priest ALONEentered into God’s presence ONE day a year. In the other case, Jesus Christ rests in God’s presence,  making a way for us to fellowship with God.

b. Holiness made possible, verse 14

because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.

To be “made perfect” does not mean there is no need for further growth on our part. It means that all believers have been brought to an experience where they are made complete in Christ. In Christ, we lack nothing that is needed to be saved. When sins are forgiven fully by God in Christ, and forgiveness fully received through personal repentance and personal faith in Christ, nothing else needs to be done.

c. Inner witness given, verses 15, 16

The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First he says: “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.”

How good do Christians have it? We have the witness of God’s Word on the inside to guide us. Strictly, this is referring to the great prophecy given in Jeremiah and quoted in Hebrews 8:8—12. Whereas under the old covenant, God’s Word was on stone tablets, under this new and improved covenant, His Word is planted in our hearts. What Jeremiah promised, Christ delivered.

d. Sins cleared out, verses 17, 18

Then he adds: “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.” And where these have been forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin.

This might be the most comforting provision of the new covenant: assurance that our sins are really and truly forgiven. Can you imagine the stress of never knowing your standing before God? Of never knowing what He thinks of you? The Christian never need doubt what his standing before God is! He is forgiven! He is clothed in the righteousness of Christ! His sins are blotted out, never be brought to His charge again.

What the old covenant couldn’t do, the new one does, completely and perfectly. Verse 18 succinctly ends the author’s discussion. If there are no more sins to be forgiven, then the work is done. Scholfied famously said this:

The difference between the Atonement as set forth in the Old Testament and as presented in the New is that in the former case the sheep died for the shepherd; in the latter, the Shepherd died for the sheep.

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