Heb. 10:1 For the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect.
2 For then would they not have ceased to be offered? because that the worshippers once purged should have had no more conscience of sins.
3 But in those sacrifices there is a remembrance again made of sins every year.
4 For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins.
There is, I believe, huge confusion (or even antinomianism) in the Church today over the expression 'the law' used by the Lord Jesus and the Apostles in the New Testament. It seems a feeling has arisen that the moral and judicial (or civil) laws of God have been abolished under the New Covenant along with the sacrificial and ceremonial. Those who put forward such a view maintain that it is impossible to separate 'the law of Moses' into constituent parts and then to say that the one is retained by Christ and the other is fulfilled.
However, a division between moral and civil, on the one hand, and sacrificial and ceremonial, on the other, is an Old Testament, let alone a New Testament, principle. For instance, the Psalmist says: 'To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice. Isaiah proclaims the word of the Lord who makes the same distinction: 'I am full of the burnt offerings of rams ... I delight not in the blood of bullocks ... seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow' (Isa 1:11,17)
An intelligent and open-minded look at the Biblical Epistle to the Hebrews reveals a clear distinction between aspects of the law. The book demonstrates to its intended Hebrew audience that the sacrificial and ceremonial aspects of the Old Testament law are perfectly fulfilled in Christ and therefore abolished, while the moral and judicial aspects continue.
WE JUST DON'T THINK LIKE JEWISH BELIEVERS
Our problem today is that because we are so far removed from the
of the first century, our instinctive interpretation of 'the law' is vastly at odds with that of the people of the time, particularly the Jewish believers. When modern believers, especially in the West, use the expression 'the law' we instinctively think of the provisions of the Ten Commandments and a few other laws which have come into our orbit: Thou shalt not murder, steal, commit adultery, engage in sodomy, lying, covetousness, gossip etc, etc. We think of all the moral and judicial laws. I am at a loss to know why Christians should want these abolished, but let us leave that diversion for now.
Anyway, I suggest the moral and judicial provisions were precisely not what first-century Jewish people understood themselves to mean when they spoke about 'the law'. Under Roman occupation, with their very Jewishness at stake, they had to cling on tightly to that which made them different from the occupiers. So when they said 'the law' they meant everything to do with the temple, the sacrifices, the ceremonies, tithing, ritual cleanliness and so on. They took the moral and judicial laws for granted.
The fact is, much of the moral and judicial laws coincided with Roman law and most were from antiquity in any case. Anyone following the Christian Voice Lamplight Bible Reading Plan through Genesis right now will testify to that. Genesis makes clear that the moral and civil law was in existence well before
. The death penalty for murder goes right back to the Lord's covenant with Noah and with all mankind for as long as there is a rainbow in the sky, while the Sabbath day's rest dates from the dawn of time itself.
We can also look to the horror with which first Pharaoh then Abimelech viewed their possible adultery with Sarah, to the sins of Sodom, to 'the iniquity of the Amorites', to the determination of Reuben not to shed Joseph's innocent blood, or Jacob's protestations over the theft of his father-in-law's idols. All through the book of Job, which predates the Exodus, there are references to both the moral and civil law. So it is too simplistic to view the whole of God's law as having descended in a blaze of glory at
, with nothing but anarchy before it. There was anarchy before the giving of God's law, but that was before the Flood, not before the Exodus.
In the context of the Epistle to the Hebrews, and the reality of first-century life, the word 'law' or its better Hebrew equivalent 'Torah', or 'instruction,' encompasses what we ignore, to the peril of our understanding. Indeed, it puts us in peril of the penalties of outer darkness if we suppose that the keeping of the moral law, and for nations the enactment of the judicial law, is of no consequence since the Cross.
USE OF THE WORD 'LAW'
It is worth reminding ourselves that the Epistle to the Hebrews was written to Jewish believers in the first century. These people had plainly not fully realised the enormity of Jesus Christ's achievement on the cross. It is clear from the context that some of them were still going back to the temple to offer sacrifices. They needed to understand that Christ had fulfilled the promise embedded in the sacrifices and had rendered them of none effect. That is the plain and obvious purpose of the book.
As to the terminology, the word 'law' is used in the Epistle 13 times. And each and every time it is used, with just one exception, it is used in connection with the priesthood, or the sacrifices. The only exception is to reinforce a rhetorical question at the end:
Heb. 10:28 He that despised Moses' law died without mercy under two or three witnesses:
29 Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace?
So that reference is mentioned as a warning not to despise the redemptive work of Jesus Christ with which the whole Epistle has been concerned. One of the other twelve examples of the use of the word 'law' is given at the start of this study. We shall look at the others in turn. Six of them are in Chapter 7:
Heb. 7:5 And verily they that are of the sons of Levi, who receive the office of the priesthood, have a commandment to take tithes of the people according to the law, that is, of their brethren, though they come out of the loins of Abraham:
Tithing is a clear reference to the Levitical law. In passing, without wanting to attack the principle of tithing in any way - I tithe myself - it is interesting how many pastors there are who believe the Lord Jesus has abolished the whole of the Mosaic law, except for tithing. I wonder why tithing stands alone as the remaining untouched part of the Mosaic Law in their minds?
THE ORDER OF MELCHIZEDEK
The next two mentions of 'the law' are in the same chapter:
Heb. 7:11 If therefore perfection were by the Levitical priesthood, (for under it the people received the law,) what further need was there that another priest should rise after the order of Melchizedek, and not be called after the order of Aaron?
12 For the priesthood being changed, there is made of necessity a change also of the law.
The change in the priesthood which involved a change in the law was that Jesus Christ was in a different league of priesthood from the Levitical. He was of the tribe of
, which the Epistle makes clear had nothing to do with priestly duties (Heb 7:14-15). But more importantly, the Epistle links Jesus with the mysterious Melchizedek, indeed saying He is 'of the order' of Melchizedek, a superior 'order' to that of the Aaronic family line of Levi.
Heb. 7:15 And it is yet far more evident: for that after the similitude of Melchizedek there ariseth another priest,
16 Who is made, not after the law of a carnal commandment, but after the power of an endless life.
17 For he testifieth, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.
18 For there is verily a disannulling of the commandment going before for the weakness and unprofitableness thereof.
So the priesthood of Aaron and everything associated with it - the laws about animal sacrifices in particular - was weak and unprofitable and has since our Lord's crucifixion been disannulled. The sacrifice of Jesus Himself has the power of 'endless life' and is 'a better hope':
19 For the law made nothing perfect, but the bringing in of a better hope did; by the which we draw nigh unto God.
And there is the expression 'the law' again, this time with the comment that it 'made nothing perfect'. Once we understand that 'the law' referred to there and all through Hebrews means the sacrificial law, it all makes sense. On the contrary, the Epistle makes no sense at all if 'the law' means the moral and judicial laws of God. That would fly in the face of the whole closely-knit argument of the Epistle, which, until the end, is totally taken up with proving that Jesus Christ replaces the priesthood of Aaron and that His sacrifice has made redundant the offerings of Aaron. The argument is made later that the animal sacrifices (under 'the law') are imperfect in the sense that they cannot take away sin, which the sacrifice of Jesus truly can.
Heb. 7:28 For the law maketh men high priests which have infirmity; but the word of the oath, which was since the law, maketh the Son, who is consecrated for evermore.
Heb. 8:4 For if he were on earth, he should not be a priest, seeing that there are priests that offer gifts according to the law:
THE END OF THE BLOOD OF BULLS AND GOATS
Chapter 9 concentrates on the blood aspect of the sacrifices. It is worth reminding ourselves that the Lord Jesus Himself spoke of his work as the 'New Testament in my blood' (Luke 22:20; 1 Cor 11:25). It was the shedding of His blood which established the New Covenant, and that blood both speaks of continuity with the Old, and of a break with it.
The sense of Hebrews, and indeed, of the entire New Testament, is that the Old sacrificial and ceremonial law was a figure of the New sacrificial and ceremonial law, whilst the rest of the law, the moral and civil, continued straight through. Much of the Sermon on the Mount, for example, is an exposition of the moral law, while verse 17 of Chapter 5 ('I am not come to destroy [the law] but to fulfil') is almost Hebrews in miniature. The Epistles of Paul to the Gentile churches are replete with references to and warnings about keeping the moral laws, together with explanations of the saving work of Christ.
There are two references to 'law' in the middle of Chapter 9 of Hebrews, in verses 19 and 22, but we can usefully start at verse 7 to get the whole context:
Heb 9:7 But into the second went the high priest alone once every year, not without blood, which he offered for himself, and for the errors of the people:
8 The Holy Ghost this signifying, that the way into the holiest of all was not yet made manifest, while as the first tabernacle was yet standing:
9 Which was a figure for the time then present, in which were offered both gifts and sacrifices, that could not make him that did the service perfect, as pertaining to the conscience;
10 Which stood only in meats and drinks, and divers washings, and carnal ordinances, imposed on them until the time of reformation.
11 But Christ being come an high priest of good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this building;
12 Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us.
13 For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh:
14 How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?
15 And for this cause he is the mediator of the new testament, that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance.
16 For where a testament is, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator.
17 For a testament is of force after men are dead: otherwise it is of no strength at all while the testator liveth.
18 Whereupon neither the first testament was dedicated without blood.
19 For when Moses had spoken every precept to all the people according to the law, he took the blood of calves and of goats, with water, and scarlet wool, and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book, and all the people,
20 Saying, This is the blood of the testament which God hath enjoined unto you.
21 Moreover he sprinkled with blood both the tabernacle and all the vessels of the ministry
22 And almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission.
JESUS WAS THE PERFECT SACRIFCE
Once again, the references to 'law' refer to the sacrificial and ceremonial element of the law revealed to Moses, and not to the moral or civil. The same theme is continued in Chapter 10 with two more references to 'the law' in the context of 'the sacrificial and ceremonial law'. In verse 1, with which we began, the law which contains 'a shadow of good things to come' is clearly the sacrifices, referred to in the same verse, while 'the good things to come' is the sacrifice of Christ. The 'blood of bulls and of goats' (vs 4) could not 'make the comers thereunto perfect'. It was 'the very image of the things', Jesus Christ, who in the will of God became the perfect sacrifice, by which 'we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all' (Heb. 10:10).
It defies common sense to say the 'law having a shadow of good things to come' refers to the moral law, to 'thou shalt not steal' or 'thou shalt not defraud thy neighbour'. How does 'thou shalt not commit adultery' become a figure of some un-named New Testament provision, or 'thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind'? Anyone would think God gave mankind the moral and civil law out of spite rather than out of love. And why should 'thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil' (Exod 23:2) or 'thou shalt not bear false witness' be good laws under the Old Covenant, but bad laws now?
The writer of Hebrews supports his argument that Christ's sacrifice supersedes the Levitical sacrifices by quoting the prophets. Micah is alluded to: 'Shall I come before him with burnt offerings?' (Micah 6:6). Micah answers that the Lord requires us 'to do justly and to love mercy' and to humble ourselves before God (vs 8). Micah thus makes a clear distinction between different parts of the law.
Heb 10:5 and 10:8 refer to Psalm 40:6 (and 50:8 and 51:16) which says, 'Sacrifice and offering thou didst not desire' before saying 'I delight to do thy will,' (vs 8 - Heb 10:9), making the same distinction. The Lord takes no pleasure in a nation's sacrifices when it ignores His moral and civil laws. But 'the law' referred to in Heb 10:8 is again clearly the law of sacrifices:
Heb 10:8 Above when he said, Sacrifice and offering and burnt offerings and offering for sin thou wouldest not, neither hadst pleasure therein; which are offered by the law;
9 Then said he, Lo, I come to do thy will, O God. He taketh away the first (law of sacrifices), that he may establish the second.
Perhaps the culmination of the Epistle to the Hebrews is in this chapter. Speaking of The Lord Jesus Christ, the writer says:
Heb 10:12 But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God;
13 From henceforth expecting till his enemies be made his footstool.
FAITH AND KEEPING THE MORAL LAW
After the famous discourse on faith and the heroes of the faith in Hebrews chapter 11, the writer ends with exhortations to holiness and good works in Chapters 12 and 13. IN passing, there has been much discussion in Christian circles down the years about the identity of the author of Hebrews. The athletics illustration in Heb 12:1 - 'let us run with patience the race which is set before us' - says to me that Paul, who used many such sporting metaphors, wrote it. If you disagree, that's fine by me.
But what is indisputable is that the author, after showing how 'the law' has been fulfilled by Christ, such that believers need not follow what was laid down by Moses, now encourages us towards love and 'good works' (Heb 10:24), fellowship and exhortation (vs 25) warns against sin (vs 26), and judgment (vs 27), speaks against blasphemy and disrespect of Christ (vs 29), against sin again (Heb 12:4) in favour of 'righteousness' (vs 11) against 'bitterness' or poison springing up in us (vs 15) against fornication and profanity (vs 16) in favour of hospitality (13:1), against adultery (vs 4) and covetousness (vs 5), in favour of doing good (vs 16), of obedience and respect (17), and of prayer and honesty (vs 18).
There is not the same exhaustive listing of moral laws as we find in the epistles to gentile audiences, but the moral law is there none the less. If they were right who say the Epistle to the Hebrews abolishes the whole of the God's law, we should find the author saying: 'You can commit adultery now, because the whole of the law has been abolished'. But he does not say that. Instead he tells us clearly:
(1) The priesthood has changed through 'Jesus the mediator of a new covenant' (or testament - Heb 12:24) and the sacrifices are no longer needed because Christ does indeed 'sanctify the people with his own blood' (Heb 13:11-12) and
(2) We are to keep the laws of God.
If we cannot make a distinction between the sacrificial and ceremonial part of the law on the one hand, and the moral and civil on the other, then the Epistle to the Hebrews can make no sense, and is self-contradictory. But we can, and it isn't.
Praise God for giving His only Son as a sacrifice to perfectly fulfil and complete the prophecy contained within the law of sacrifices. Praise Him for His Law-word, as unchanging as He is unchanging. Praise Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and for ever, for being our great High Priest, the crucified, risen, ascended, glorified King of kings, but equally, our friend and advocate:
Heb. 7:25 Wherefore he is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them.