When Paul wrote to the Corinthians to sum up what it is that was at the center of his ministry he declared, “We preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor 1:23). A few verses later, summing up his ministry among the Corinthians specifically, he wrote, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). And a few verses earlier he wrote of the gospel, referring to the good news that he preached as “the word of the cross” (1 Cor 1:18). I think it’s easy to say that the cross of Jesus Christ was quite central in Paul’s thinking and ministry.
And it’s obvious that we’ve made it a central reality in our lives and worship as well. We have a large cross on the front of our building, one hanging on the wall over our information table in the lobby, a small one on each of the communion plates in front of me, and a large one behind me over our baptistry, in addition to many I’ve probably missed. We could also note that we sang together this morning about our Lord washing us with his blood and sometimes sing of an entire fountain filled with blood under which we have been plunged. Then, in the middle of our service, we heard the reading of Scripture from Revelation 5 about a Lamb who had been slain and ransomed a people for God by his blood.
Yet, all of this focus on the cross and Christ shedding his blood isn’t unique to the apostle Paul or those of us in this room. The storyline of the Bible is one that forces us to look toward and focus on the cross of Jesus Christ. Even in the Old Testament, we are already being told of a suffering servant who will come and will be like a lamb led to slaughter, be crushed for our iniquities, bear the sin of many, and pour out his soul to death (Is 53). And our study through the book of Hebrews has focused us on Christ’s death repeatedly. It’s spoken of his priesthood, death, sacrifice, and shedding of blood especially often in this last chapter. In fact, if you look at 9:12-26, there is a reference to death, blood, or sacrifice in fourteen of the fifteen verses, and sometimes a term is mentioned multiple times in a single verse.
Why? Why so much focus on blood, death, and sacrifice? Why point us so often to the cross? Let me give you two reasons. The first is because the story of Scripture starts with bad news. The bad news is that God is holy and yet all of mankind is sinful and under his judgment. And as God is holy, he cannot merely overlook sin but must pour out his wrath in judgment. Thus, Paul concludes in Romans 3:19 that every mouth is shut and the whole world is accountable to God. In our unrepentant hearts, we’re storing up wrath for ourselves on the day of judgment. That’s the bad news.
But there’s good news. The good news is that God has made a way for guilty sinners to be forgiven and cleansed without in any way compromising his holiness. He sent his Son into the world in order to bear the judgment and wrath that we had merited as sinners so that Jesus died on the cross, shed his blood, and laid down his life as a sacrifice for sinners. Then he rose from the dead so that whoever believes in him has forgiveness of sins and eternal life. That’s the good news, and it centers on Jesus’ death for us. Apart from the cross, we bear God’s wrath. But through faith in the one who bore God’s wrath on the cross for us, we have forgiveness and life. That’s reason number one why there is so much focus on blood, death, and sacrifice in the Scripture.
And the second reason there’s so much focus on the cross is because in the depths of our hearts, we always want to look to something besides what Jesus did for us as our hope for righteousness and eternal life. That temptation is always there. And the particular sin we’re tempted with in these moments is self-righteousness.
Now, what’s so subtle and dangerous about the sin of self-righteousness as it seeks to remove our eyes from the sufficiency of the cross of Christ is that it doesn’t feel to us like self-righteousness. In fact, there may be many of you in this room who when I said, “There’s always a temptation for us to look away from the sufficiency of the cross to something else,” you said to yourself, “Oh, that’s me.” But when you hear that labeled “self-righteousness,” you want to backtrack.
And the reason you want to backtrack is because self-righteousness can feel like holiness. It can feel like humility. It’s saying in those moments after you identify sin in your life, “I don’t feel like I can be forgiven unless I grovel a little longer or beat myself over this a little more.” But brothers and sisters, what you’re saying in those moments is that the cross is not sufficient for this. The Bible labels that self-righteousness. That’s trying to establish a righteousness on your own apart from or in addition to Christ’s work. I have a friend who’s said that you know you struggle with self-righteousness if on the days you can check all the boxes on your spiritual to-do list, you’re filled with joy and hope, and on the days you can’t, you feel discouraged and hopeless. That is the sure sign you’ve lost sight of the sufficiency of Christ’s work. Either our salvation is wrapped up one hundred percent in what he’s done for us or we’re condemned. There’s no middle ground. And so the Bible holds up the cross to us again and again, reminding us of its sufficiency.
Now, these Jewish Christians to whom this letter to the Hebrews was written were also tempted to turn away from Jesus’ sacrifice and priestly work for redemption. In their case, they were tempted to turn away from Jesus and back to the sacrifices under the old covenant, that is, the sacrifices of bulls and goats which were only ever intended to be (as our text says) “shadows of the good things to come” (v. 1). And the author of Hebrews has attempted to open their eyes to the fact that this is a pursuit of self-righteousness. If they walk away from Jesus—to anything else—they will stand on their own merits on the day of judgment. And none of us has sufficient righteousness in ourselves for that great day. Therefore, for their sake and our sake, the Spirit inspired the author of Hebrews to spend a lot of time and focus on the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrificial work for us.
So, this morning, one more time, we turn our focus to the superiority and sufficiency of Christ’s death for us, and my hope is that we can find ourselves glorying in the sufficiency of his finished work for us. The text breaks down into four sections.1 In verses 1-4 he notes the insufficiency of the law in its sacrifices. In verses 5-10 he shows the superiority of Christ’s sacrifice. In verses 11-14 he shows the superiority of Christ’s priestly work. And finally in verses 15-18 he shows the sufficiency of the new covenant and Christ’s sacrifice. So, as we walk through this, perhaps you can insert whatever insufficient form of righteousness you’re looking to this morning, see its insufficiency, and delight in the sufficient work of Christ for you. Let’s start in that first section.
The insufficiency of the law and its sacrifices
Again, for various reasons, these Jewish believers were being tempted to walk away from Jesus and go back to the system of worship and way things were under the old covenant, before Jesus came. The author of Hebrews has told them that if they do this, they’re walking away from their only hope of salvation. Therefore, as I’ve noted before, this is not merely an academic argument as he shows the emptiness of trying to go back to the law and its sacrifices. He’s fighting for their souls. Therefore, he starts this section by showing them the inadequacy of the law and its sacrifices in terms of dealing with sin.
He writes, “For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (vv. 1-4).
What we’re being told here is that when the Lord established the old covenant with all of its rituals and prescribed sacrifices, one of its key purposes was to be a shadow of what the Lord was going to do. And it did that very well, didn’t it? We understand Christ as priest and Christ as an offering for sin because these categories were established for us and foreshadowed for us in these practices in the old covenant. After you read the Old Testament, categories like Jesus serving as priest, making a sacrifice for sin, etc. makes sense. So, the old covenant, with all of its rituals and sacrifices, served a great purpose in giving us a shadow of what was to come.
But there were also elements built into them to show that they were never meant to be the true answer for dealing with our sins. You can almost feel the inadequacy screaming at you in the way the author writes “it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near” (v. 1). The fact that these offering had to be continually made was always telling those who lived under the old covenant that more is needed if their sins are going to be dealt with.
For one, they were always announcing their inadequacy simply because they never really cleansed the conscience. They were ineffective at dealing with the heart or taking away guilt. And the other way they announced inadequacy was by being offered every year. They actually served to remind the Israelite of his sin.
Imagine, for example, that you had done something wrong and in order to atone for it, every year you had to go and perform some atoning work. Maybe you had to pick up the trash from Pipkin Road out here in front of our building, let’s say, every July 14th. Well, no matter how many times you felt like time and distance had moved you away from your sin, every July 14th would remind you that you weren’t free of it, wouldn’t it? No matter how much you’d forgotten about your sin and guilt throughout the year, when July 14th rolled around, there’d be your annual reminder of what you’d done. And the problem is that July 14th comes every year.
So it is with the day of atonement. Every year the high priest would have to go into the most holy place and sacrifice a goat for your sins. It was a reminder every year that more needed to be done for your sin. If that one offering had been enough, it would have ceased being done. But it was always needed. And the reason why, of course, is because God’s intent was never to remove our sins through the sacrifice of bulls and goats, “for it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (v. 4). That’s our first section—the inadequacy of the law and its sacrifices. Then, in verses 5-10 we see the superiority of Christ’s sacrifice.
The superiority of Christ’s sacrifice
The author begins our next section by saying that the built-in inadequacy of the old covenant sacrifices was clearly understood by Jesus. He writes, “Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, ‘Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, “Behold, I have come to do your will, O God, as it is written of me in the scroll of the book”’ (vv. 5-7).
Now, this can be a bit confusing, so let’s try to work through this bit by bit. The quotation here that we see in verses 5-7 is a quotation from Psalm 40. And Psalm 40 is a psalm where David is asking the Lord to deliver him from his enemies. And it’s clear that David is speaking of himself in that he even refers to his own sin (Ps 40:12). But as he asks for deliverance from God, David gives the Lord a list of reasons why he should be delivered. For example, he has praised God in the presence of others when God has previously delivered him. He’s spoken of God’s faithfulness to others. And one of the things he mentions as why God should deliver him is that he’s done more than merely offered sacrifices and burnt offerings. He understands that God doesn’t want just those things; he wants David’s heart. And what David says is that he gets that, and he’s given himself over to obey God. He’s completely given to obeying God’s will. He wills to do God’s will.
So why does the author of Hebrews, then, seem to treat this as if Jesus is the speaker? The reason why is because David functions as a type of Christ in the Scriptures. David is the king of Israel, but Jesus will come as the true king of the Jews. David is betrayed by one of his friends, and Jesus is betrayed by one of his own disciples. David feels abandoned by God and says, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” in Psalm 22, but Jesus actually bears the wrath of God on the cross as he cries out the same words. In other words, just like the priesthood and sacrifices were types and shadows, so David’s life serves as a type and shadow to point us forward to Jesus.
Consequently, the author of Hebrews understood that David’s words were pointing us toward a truer reality when put in the mouth of Jesus. David knew that sacrifices weren’t all that God wanted. Jesus knew that his Father sent him not to offer sacrifices but to offer himself. Therefore, when Jesus says these words, he’s saying much more than, “I’ve not just made sacrifices, for I know you’ve desired more; I’ve been obedient.” Rather, the Son is saying, “I know that sacrifices aren’t your solution for sins, but instead you’ve given me a body to do your will,” meaning to offer himself. In other words, Jesus knew that the sacrificial system of the old covenant was never the permanent answer for sin, so he did not come to make sacrifices. He came to sacrifice himself. It’s as if God the Son quotes Psalm 40 as he’s ready to come and take on flesh in Mary’s womb. He came to be the sufficient sacrifice for sin, knowing that the old covenant sacrifices were never the solution.
And the author adds in verses 8-10 that by understanding the sacrificial system wasn’t God’s ultimate answer, Jesus did away with that whole system and established himself as the answer for sins. Thus, he writes, ‘He does away with the first in order to established the second. And by that will [i.e. willingness to offer himself] we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”
In other words, Jesus knew the truth of verses 1-4, and he knew the divine mission was to offer himself, so he came to do just that. And what he did in offering himself did what the OT sacrifices never could. His offering of his body for us sanctified us. He made us holy, set apart, forgiven children of God.
And the author continues, noting the superiority of all of Christ’s priestly work in verses 11-14.
The superiority of Christ’s priestly work
First, he notes that the priest’s work at the time they were doing it was announcing its inadequacy. Listen to what he writes in verse 11: “And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.” There wasn’t a seat for the high priest to sit in after he finished his sacrifices because there were always more to come.
But when you compare that to Jesus, the contrast stands out. The author writes, “But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (vv. 12-14).
Drawing from Psalm 110, the author tells us that Jesus sat down after his death and resurrection. His single sacrifice is sufficient to bring permanent and perfect forgiveness to all those who trust in him. His sitting isn’t insignificant. It announces to us that Christ’s life, death, and resurrection were effective.
And finally, in verses 15-18 we see the adequacy of the new covenant and Christ’s sacrifice.
The sufficiency of the new covenant and Christ’s sacrifice
The author began with the inadequacy of the law (the old covenant) and its sacrifices, and he ends by showing us the adequacy of this new covenant and Christ’s sacrifice which makes it effective. He writes, “And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying, ‘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” (vv. 15-18).
Let’s follow the logic here. When the Spirit directed Jeremiah to write down God’s covenant promises that he was going to fulfill with the new covenant, he directed Jeremiah to write that God would put his laws in the hearts and minds of his people, meaning that he would give them hearts that desired to obey the Lord and follow his commands. But the Spirit also directed Jeremiah to say, as the mouthpiece of God, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.”
Therefore, one of the things that God promised his children is forgiveness of sins. But, if we remember the argument from earlier in this text, if there’s true forgiveness of sins, then there must be a sufficient offering for sin, one that can permanently remove sin. And if there has been a sufficient offering, then there’s nothing more that needs to be done.
In other words, your forgiveness and mine is one hundred percent dependent on Jesus’ work for us. We will not suffer condemnation and divine punishment because Jesus laid down his life and took it up again for us. Nothing more and nothing less is needed. This means that every time the enemy attempts to convince you that you’re not forgiven until you grovel a little more or beat yourself up over your struggles a little more, you can say to the devil, “Do you really think that I need to add my groveling or self-abuse to Christ’s sacrifice as if Christ wasn’t enough!” He is enough. His sacrifice is sufficient for our permanent forgiveness of sins.
And I know we saw that point over and over in Romans, for example, and other places. But the reason I want to hold it up for us again today is for a few reasons: 1) it’s the application of the text when it tells us that Christ has “perfected for all time those who are being sanctified,” 2) I want you to know and walk in the freedom from condemnation that Paul speaks of in Galatians and wanted so deeply for his readers to know and feel and walk in, and 3) I want us to be a people who walk in holiness. And the only platform from which we’ll live holy lives, obeying the Lord from our hearts, is a platform of understanding that what Jesus has done for us is enough, and we get to walk and live and delight in the freedom he gives us. Let us then delight this morning in the all-sufficient sacrifice of the Son of God and give thanks to him as we come to the table. Amen.
A very similar outline is given by William Lane in Hebrews 9-13 (Dallas: Word, 1991), 258.