Quoting the Psalms, the author clearly states that God does not want sacrifices for sins. This should be enough to cancel in our minds the idea that God ever needed blood for our sins. It’s like a son asking his father to forgive him, and the father replying that he needs to punish someone before he can do that. It just doesn’t make sense. The whole issue about sin and punishment is in our mind, not in God’s, and we have read that into scripture, just as humans always have.
We can bring to the table many texts that speak of God punishing people, but the issue is always about what people will bring upon themselves if they don’t change. The punishment, or “vengeance,” is never the will of God in itself. Sin has its own punishment (consequences), and God doesn’t ever have to put his own hand in it.
“Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt… by his knowledge, my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.” (Isaiah 53:10-11)
There is a tradition in Jewish interpretation that this passage speaks of their exile in Babylon and the empires that followed. It uses sacrificial language to describe how human suffering can transform evil into good. That in putting the Jews to grief in their exile, they were bringing the knowledge of God to the world and transformation to many lives.
And this was the way the text referred to Jesus. He too would suffer the wrath of Rome, and in so doing would reveal our sin, as well as God’s forgiveness and love to the world. So too the church, as we suffer in the world, we bring to light the world’s sin, and the character of God’s forgiveness and love to our enemies. God is revealed to darkness by light.
This all pleases God. He is not the one requiring our suffering, he also suffers the injustice of the world with us. But he is pleased that in that suffering we are not like the world, instead we bear his image. The way this “justifies” the world is that lives and communities are transformed. The justification here isn’t a legal status but lives that are changed into conformity with good.
This is the atonement: God’s way of triumphing is to bring good out of evil, to turn the enemy’s deeds against him. He doesn’t do the evil, nor require it, but he brings redemption out of it.
Hebrews 10 continues…
“Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body have you prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure.”
“A body you have prepared me.” This doesn’t mean God gave Jesus a body because he demanded his death instead of the animals’ death. It means “body” in the sense of a temple. God sent Christ to take away the old temple and replace it with a new temple, not one based on blood, but on grace. Christ’s body is the new temple, the new creation, the new cosmos. It is where heaven and earth come together, God and mankind, death and resurrection/ newness. He buries our condemnation, our lust for legal vengeance, and births grace relationships in its place.
The church is his body, taking grace to the nations, taking away sacrifice in the sense of what it meant in the former temple, and replacing it with new sacrifice, caring service of others. This is God’s atonement, which we are to follow.
“We have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” When we slew Jesus, according to our former sense of vengeance under the Old Covenant, bound, as we were, by the law, he forgave our sin against him, breaking the power of that old life, the human fallenness.
He exposed our old retributive lives and invited us into a new life of forgiving others, as he forgave us. If we say God demanded his death for us, then we sanctify violence.
But God wants to sanctify our hearts from the sin that accuses, by simply forgiving us from the cross, from the place where we will hear him. This is why Jesus had to suffer, to join us in our sufferings, so we would hear his love from the place of our sin. This sanctifies our hearts, turns us from our sin to his grace. It’s when law has been dealt with by the cross that grace can fill its place. This is how the Holy Spirit can then come in and fill our new hearts.
“Christ … offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins.” His self-giving on the cross revealed our sin and at the same time took our sin away by his forgiving us. All this he did by the shedding of his blood, by his suffering at the hand of humanity. So, in sacrificial language, that is commonly understood by mankind, his blood took away our sin. And hearing forgiveness from the Son of God from the cross, we never need to hear that again. God has forgiven us in Christ, by one sacrifice, forever.
So here is the goal…
“This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds,” Then he adds, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.”
It isn’t because God requires blood that Christ died, but because God wanted to change our hearts. This is what the cross was about. Having exposed our sin and taken its condemnation from our hearts, his Spirit can now fill our emptiness with his love. This is the law the Spirit now writes on our new hearts: “You shall love God and love your neighbour.” This love replaces the former guilt/ rage that caused us to make sacrifices of others.
And God pledges not to remember our sins, which came to their height in the sins we committed against him in Christ. In forgiving our sin against him, he forgives all sin. For if any person refuses to forgive our sin against them, then God can ask them to forgive it, for in Christ God forgave them. They can’t withhold forgiveness to us, if God has forgiven them. Forgiveness of sin is not a legal issue, but a relational one.
Christ didn’t die as a legal demand of God, but to take law away from our heart and restore our relationships. Relationships aren’t restored between us and others because there has been a “punishment of justice.” Such punishments don’t help either the victim or the perpetrator. What helps is forgiveness that flows from the cross into our hearts and then into our relationships with each other. Our desire is for recovery, “healing for the sick,” as Jesus put it, not punishment. Punishment feeds the cycle of violence. “Freely you have received, freely give.”
Having forgotten our sin, having put our sin away, there is no more need of sacrifice. Our bloodletting has ceased. We have no more consciousness of sin. We stop looking for a scapegoat and the need of sacrificing others, for our sin has disappeared, because of the cross. Sacrificing has stopped, because when our heart changes we no longer do it to others.
The issue of the blood of the cross wasn’t something that God demanded as a payment for himself, but the way in which he put away the Old Testament from our hearts, and brought us into the New Covenant, in which he can write his love upon our hearts. This heals us and our communities. So, the issue of the cross was to serve us, not to appease God, except that he is appeased by the good that has happened to us in the gospel. The appeasement is that God is pacified about evil, because good has come from it. The good that came from Israel’s evil, our evil, was that Christ revealed our fall and revealed our salvation.
And we learn in this chapter why the cross was necessary for the church to be filled with the Holy Spirit. It wasn’t that God demanded the payment before he would agree to come near us. It was because until our hearts are cleansed by our conscience, we are the ones who push God away. It’s when law and its condemnation can leave our hearts, and grace takes over, that we accept God in our lives and can walk with his Spirit once again, as Adam and Eve once did. The cross isn’t a payment to God, but a rescue of humanity.
The cross restores our “confidence,” “full assurance of faith,” by “sprinkling our evil conscience,” urging us to “draw near to God.” The cross pulls down the wall that divided us, and this wall was in our own conscience, not in God’s heart. Then, we don’t let that evil conscience return to our minds, but “hold fast the confession of our faith,” meaning the love and acceptance God has for us, proven to us by Jesus. God doesn’t love us because of Jesus. He loved us before Jesus. Jesus brought his love to us, proved his love to a people who didn’t believe it. Now we hold fast to that love, and we don’t allow the hate of the world to convince us otherwise.
“Coming together in fellowship” to help bring healing to one another in a hurting world, to remind each other of God’s love for us all. Especially as you see “the day approaching.” This was the day in which Jerusalem was destroyed, on the horizon when the letter of Hebrews was written, which would have been a great concern to the Hebrew readers of this letter. Nothing like this had happened in Israel’s history since the nation began. As this day approached, hatred filled many hearts, as Jesus said would happen in that generation. Our fellowship together is to foster service, foot washing, to keep this hatred at bay from our hearts, not allowing those things to return, that the cross has taken away.
Hebrews 10 continued….
“For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries… How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?”
If God has revealed his love to us on the cross, and we turn away from that love, and turn against one other, resuming our hostilities, then there is no other option than for hate to fill our hearts again. There is no other sacrifice that can take that hate away. And if this happens, the hate shall destroy us. This is God’s judgment for rejecting his love, but something God has no choice in, but to allow us our own way. If we tread his love under our feet, the we are the ones who decide to drive redeeming love from our hearts.
“A fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.” Instead of his love, fear of judgement fills our heart, and so this is how we treat our enemies. We judge them as our heart is judging us. Judgement and rage take over our communities. A nation that indulges more in bloody wars, has a greater sense of the fires of hell in its theology. They view God and authority the way they use authority against others. But this isn’t the real God, just one made in their fallen conscience. This is humanity being ruled by the gods.
“It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” What happens when we fall into the hands of the living God? He delivers us into our own hands. This is the fearful thing: that the hatred that fills our own hearts, will overtake and consume us all in our own enmity which we create against each other. That we will live without his grace and love, because we have decided we don’t want it. The end of that can only be destruction, because that is what we turn our own hearts towards. This destruction means extermination. This is the meaning of the Greek word.
When we see art depictions of the cross keeping us from falling into a pit of fire, this is the pit the scriptures mean: the pit of hatred, anger and self-destruction. The cross came to save us from that, not by appeasing God, but by renewing our hearts, changing our life, turning us around, removing the destructive gods of self from our minds. The cross isn’t a legal contract with God, but a renewed life. The cross doesn’t pay for us to be saved while we continue in hatred, it redeems us from hatred.
The hands that many of the Jews of the first century fell into were their own hands. They consumed each other in such hatred and destruction. Flavius Josephus described this in The Wars of The Jews. It was beyond terrible. Then they were delivered into the hands of the Romans, again, as Josephus described, entirely by their own doing, and the Roman destruction was with previously unheard-of brutality. Rome burnt Jerusalem with such a ferocious fire no one had ever seen before. This was all human hatred and greed, none of which came from God. It is people who have rejected the love of God and have taken judgement and its terrible fire into their own imagination and destructive relationships.
The author of Hebrews calls his readers to recall their early days, when they endured persecutions with joy, not with hatred. They didn’t join the hatred of their persecutors, but kept themselves in the love of God, which had come to them through Christ. This allowed them to be a witness to many, whose hearts softened, and they too were saved.
They were delivered from greed, and the enmity greed brings into our hearts against other people. They were free from the love of their possessions, and saw they had things of much greater value, like joy, trust and true fellowship with others.
The struggles in the days of the early church boiled down to greed and covetousness, as human struggles have throughout history. What would they allow to fill their hearts? Greed for themselves, or the love of God for other people? What is the result of the gospel? The overthrow of pagan idolatry, of self ruling the heart. This was what God called Israel to achieve, to overthrow idolatry, and this has been achieved in Christ, not by our human conquest of others.
The people were called to endure for a little season, until God’s judgment had come upon Jerusalem and their current days of persecution were at an end. They were to endure by “faith,” which means faithfulness. This is from Habakkuk, who was called not to follow the greed of Babylon, but instead share mercy with his neighbour and enemy. This is faith. It isn’t the individual “believe-ism” we have thought. It doesn’t mean a creedal faith in the cross, against the faith of the Jews. It means a faithfulness produced in our hearts and lives by the cross, in which we love our persecutors, and do not partake of the hostility of our own day.
This also applies to us in any generation. We all have choices to make in the hostility and greed of our time, which alienates the less fortunate, makes scapegoats of our enemies, and puts humanity upon crosses that we have made for them. How do we live in this world? We need to respond in faithfulness, having our hearts sprinkled from this judgementalism against others, and filled with a new covenant love for our neighbour. We may suffer if we choose to lift the poor, rather than scapegoat our enemies. But this will produce in our hearts eternal values that will have the fruit of life forever, in our communities today and in the resurrection.