There’s a lot of confusion surrounding the place and meaning of the Old Testament sacrifices. So what did they mean? What did they accomplish? Three crystal clear answers are provided in Hebrews 10 verses 1-4.
The OT sacrifices shadowed good things to come (v. 1a)
Try to think of your most cherished and precious religious activity. Maybe it’s singing God’s praises, maybe it’s the prayer meeting, or preaching, or fellowship, or the Lord’s Supper. How would you feel if someone came along and told you, “Hey, that’s just a pale shadow of what we have got in our church.” You would probably feel a bit hurt and offended, and it might even make you say, “Well if there’s one church I’m not going to, it’s yours!”
However, that’s what the Apostle was saying to the Hebrews. He told them that the things they treasured and cherished most were only pale shadows of what the Christian Church was now enjoying. He was not saying that the New Covenant Church was practicing a different religion to the Old Covenant Church, but rather a higher, fuller, and brighter form of the same religion. He was saying that Christ’s saving shadow lay over the OT, but that if they came over to the New Covenant Church, they would see the One who cast the shadow.
Or to put it another way, holding on to the Old Testament sacrifices was like stopping at a signpost that said, “Grand Rapids — 100 miles” and calling it home. The Apostle was saying, “The OT sacrifices pointed you in the right direction, but come all the way home! You’ve followed the signposts pointing to good things to come. Great! But as the good “thing” has now come, don’t stop short. You’ve enjoyed the saving shadow; now come and bask in His saving sunlight.”
The OT sacrifices never saved anyone (vv. 1b-4)
1. They could not perfect anyone (1b): The same sacrifices were repeated endlessly year after year. But they never (not past, present, future) made worshippers perfect. They provided ceremonial cleansing (qualified them to take part in the Tabernacle and Temple rituals and ceremonies). But they never made anyone “perfect,” which means “to bring to completion.” They had the limited usefulness of allowing Israelites to draw near to God physically – granting access to the camp and it’s Tabernacle – but they could not go further. They could not bring people to “completion,” to the intended end of nearness and fellowship with God.
2. They could not pacify the human conscience (2-3): If the sacrifices had ever cleansed the conscience, the worshipers would no longer have felt guilty for their sin, and they would have stopped offering the sacrifices. The fact that they continued to offer the sacrifices proved that they were still conscious of unforgiven sin that broke communion with God. The annual Day of Atonement, which seems to be especially in view here, produced a specially painful conscience in many Hebrews. When it came round every year, the burden of unforgiven sin felt heavier not lighter. The perpetual repetition of the sacrifices proved the ineffectiveness.
3. They could not put away sin before God (4): The Apostle tells us that however many gallons of animal blood was poured into God’s presence, not one sin was ever washed away by that tsunami of blood. Not one. “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.”
Moral defilement cannot be removed by an animal. (Ps. 51:10, 16f; 1 Sam. 15:22; Ps. 50:8ff; Isa 1:11ff; 66:1ff; Jer. 7:21ff; Hos. 6:6; 14:2; Amos 5:21ff; Mic. 6:6ff). There is a great gulf fixed between animal sacrifices and human beings. It’s so disproportionate. As the Apostle reminds us three times: animal sacrifices cannot take away sin (Heb. 10:1, 4, 11). Even if every animal in the world was sacrificed for me, not one of my sins would be washed away.
And that did not just begin to be true when Jesus came. It was true throughout the Old Testament as well. That’s why in chapter 10, as in so many other places, the Apostle turns to the Old Testament (Ps. 40) to prove his point!
The OT sacrifices reminded of sin (3)
In fact, far from removing sin, the sacrifices reminded of sin. Every time they were offered it was like a reminder alarm going off in their consciences. “This is what you deserve. This is the danger you are in.”
On the annual Day of Atonement the High Priest confessed all the sins of the nation. So many thousands of sacrifices were offered then and at the Passover, that channels were actually constructed to carry the gallons of blood from the altar to the Brook Kidron. And at the end of the annual Atonement Day, the High Priest came out from his once-a-year visit to the Most Holy Place and said, “That’s it, you don’t need to come back next year or ever again!”
No, he came out and all that could be said was “See you again next year.” The sacrifices were a powerful reminder of sin, but, in and of themselves, they were powerless to save. If any Israelite ever asked a godly priest, “How many animals will it take to save my soul?” the answer would have been: “It is not possible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sin. Look in faith to the coming Messiah that these sacrifices point us toward.”
That’s why the Apostle here turns from animal bodies (Heb. 10:1-4) to the precious and perfect body of Christ (v. 5), and His one perfect offering that perfects us, pacifies our conscience, and puts sin away (vv. 11-14). “The blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).
One body. One sacrifice. One priest. One salvation. It is finished!