THE RICH ARGUMENT OF HEBREWS 9 would take us beyond the limits of this meditation. Here I shall make clear some of the contrasts the author draws between the countless deaths of sacrificial animals in the Old Testament, and the death of Jesus that lies at the heart of the new covenant.
First, part of his argument depends on what he has said so far. If the tabernacle and the Levitical priesthood were from the beginning meant to be only temporary institutions that taught the covenant people some important lessons and pointed forward to the reality that would come with Christ, then the same thing applies to the sacrifices. So the author sums up his position to this point: the entire system was “an illustration for the present time, indicating that the gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper. They are only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings—external regulations applying until the time of the new order” (Heb. 9:9–10).
Second, the very repetition of the sacrifices—for example, those offered on the Day of Atonement—demonstrates that none of these sacrifices provides a final accounting for sin. There will always be more sin, demanding yet more sacrifice, with the priest still standing to kill one more animal and offer yet more blood. Contrast Christ’s sacrifice, offered once (Heb. 9:6, 9, 25–26; 10:1ff).
But the third and most important point is the nature of the sacrifice. How could the blood of bulls and goats really deal with sin? The animals themselves were not volunteering for this slaughter; they were dragged to the altar by their owners. The animals lost their lives, but they were scarcely willing victims. So far as “willingness” went, it was the people who owned the sacrificed animals who were losing something. Of course, this sacrificial system was appointed by God himself. He taught thereby that sin demands death—and in the sweep of the Bible’s storyline, that a better “lamb” would be needed. The sins of the people were thus covered over until such a sacrifice should appear. But the blood and ashes of animals provided no final answer.
How different the sacrifice of Jesus Christ! He “through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God”—that is, not “by the Holy Spirit,” but “through [his own] eternal Spirit,” an act of will, a supreme act of voluntary sacrifice, the Son acquiescing to the Father’s plan. There indeed was a sacrifice of untold merit, of incalculable significance. That is why his blood, his life violently and sacrificially offered up, is able to “cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!” (Heb. 9:14).