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Did you hear something that sounded a little strange in this Scripture? Did you hear something that almost seemed like a contradiction? Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them”– though they were offered in accordance with the law. That sounds a little strange doesn’t it? At Mt. Sinai God commanded all these sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings. You can read all about them in the book of Leviticus. So, if God commanded them, and the were being offered in accordance with the law, why would God say that he did not desire them and was not pleased with them? What purpose did they serve?
Earlier in the chapter the writer to the Hebrews explains their purpose. He says that they were an annual reminder of sin. Every time you brought an animal to a priest to be sacrificed you put your hands on it’s head symbolizing that it was taking your place. And what happened to that animal? It was sacrificed. Its throat was slit and its blood was collected and sprinkled or poured out at the altar of God. Portions of the animal were cut up and burned on the altar. It was a gruesome reminder of the seriousness of sin, that the wages of sin is death. What happened to that animal is what should have happened to you because of your sin. Your blood should have been poured out and you should be experiencing something worse than the fire on the altar. You should be experiencing the eternal fires of Hell.
Today we shy away from such reminders of sin and the punishment we deserve. We don’t like to look at a bloody Jesus. In fact, Facebook tries to ban images that show a bloody lamb or a bloody Jesus. We talk about mistakes, or bad choices, instead of sin. If someone sins we tend to say that it’s not a big deal. We like pictures of a smiling Jesus and a cross without a bleeding body on it. And there is a place for that too. But we have to ask ourselves if we are avoiding those gruesome, bloody things because we don’t want to think about the seriousness of our sin. The Old Testament sacrificial system brought home the truth very clearly that the wages of sin is death.
The writer also explains earlier in this chapter that these sacrifices had another good purpose. They served as shadows, as an indication that something even greater was coming around the corner. That’s what a shadow does. When you see it you know it’s not the real thing, but the reason it’s there is that something real is blocking a light source. From the shadow you might be able to determine something about the reality that’s casting the shadow, maybe it’s general size and shape. But once you can clearly see the reality, the shadow is no longer important. Paul says that all these Old Testament sacrifices and regulations, including the Sabbath, are a shadow of the things to come. The reality, the body that’s casting the shadow, is Christ.
The writer to the Hebrews quotes Psalm 40 as referring to Jesus. “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; ‘Here I am– it is written about me in the scroll– I have come to do your will, my God.‘”
The sacrifices and offerings of the Old Testament pointed to Jesus. A body was prepared for him. He took on flesh and blood. He came to earth so that he could do the will of the Father.
The will of the Father is that every one of his commandments be kept perfectly. He demands that we be holy, not just pretty good, not just better than others, but as holy and sinless as he is. That’s not something we can do. Even if we were to keep the whole law of God and just make one little mistake, just commit one sin, we would no longer meet his demand to be perfect. Even for just one sin we would deserve his eternal wrath and punishment. So Jesus took on flesh and blood. He was born under the law just as we are. He was tempted in every way, just as we are, yet he remained without sin. He came to do God’s will, and he did it. The Father declared it to be so at his baptism and again at the transfiguration when he called him his beloved son with whom he was pleased. Jesus challenged his enemies to prove him guilty of sin, but even those who brought false witness against him couldn’t make their lies stick. Both Pilate and Herod examined Jesus and declared that he was innocent. Just as the animals who were brought to be offered as sacrifices were examined to make sure they were unblemished, so Jesus was examined and shown to be the unblemished lamb of God. He did God’s will perfectly, but most importantly he did it for us, as our substitute. As Paul says, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.
The Old Testament sacrifices served their purpose. They were a constant reminder of the seriousness of sin, and a constant foreshadowing of something better to come. But no matter how many sacrifices earthly priests offered, they were never enough. The proof that they were never enough is that they had to keep offering them over and over again. This too is a graphic reminder for us that sacrifices we make for God never satisfy God’s demand for justice. They do not earn us forgiveness. Tears of sorrow over sin have a place, but no matter how hard we cry, tears don’t earn us forgiveness. Sacrificing time to come to worship, faithfully speaking all the right words of the liturgy and prayers, giving a generous portion of our income to the Lord, faithfully caring for church property are all good things, but they don’t earn us forgiveness, or make up for even one sin. If we think they do, remember what God says in his word- sacrifices and offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them. Sacrifices we offer can never take away sin, even when they are required by God. Only the sacrifice Jesus offered for us can take away sin.
Jesus took on a body so that he could do the Father’s will. He put himself under the law and kept it for us. He lived as the unblemished lamb of God so that he could offer himself as a sacrifice for us. Because he took on a body and did the Father’s will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
What a relief it is to know that we don’t have to feel like a hamster on a wheel, stuck doing the same thing over and over and never getting anywhere. We don’t have to keep making sacrifices every day, over and over and over again, realizing they are never enough to earn God’s favor, because our sacrifices and offerings can never take away sin. What a relief it is to know that Jesus came to earth and offered one perfect sacrifice that paid for the sins of the world. And if you are living in the world, whatever your sins may be, Jesus has sacrificed himself for them. Now the things that we do for God are not burdensome, but joyful responses to what he has done for us in Jesus. Now we don’t see the things that we do for God as grudgingly sacrificing something we would rather have for ourselves, but willingly serving the one who has given us everything, including eternal life in heaven.
How do we know that this good news is true? How do we know that Jesus did the Father’s will and that his sacrifice in our place was accepted by the Father? When Jesus had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. He is not standing at an altar offering sacrifices over and over and over again. On the cross he proclaimed in a loud voice for all to hear, It is finished. On the third day God put his stamp of approval on Jesus’ sacrifice in our place by raising him from the dead. After 40 days of showing himself as risen he ascended to the right hand of the Father where he continues to serve as our great High Priest. No more sacrifices need to be made. His self-sacrifice was sufficient. His high priestly duties now consist only in interceding for us, constantly pointing to the fact that his finished, perfect self-sacrifice has paid for our sins in full. We have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.