The author is writing to Jewish Christians who are under pressure to abandon Christianity and return to Judaism. He is trying to persuade them to remain faithful to Jesus, the perfect sacrifice and true high priest.
To accomplish this, he devotes 1:1 – 10:18 to outlining the many ways that Christ and the new covenant are superior to Moses and the old covenant. The Son is superior to angels (1:5-14)—and Moses (3:1-6)—and the high priests (4:14 – 5:10; 7:1-28). Jesus mediates a superior covenant (8:1 – 9:28). His sacrifice on the cross was once-for-all, with no need of constant repetition, as was required by the old covenant (10:1-18).
The author speaks of the law as a “shadow of the good things to come” (10:1). A shadow, of course, can be a good thing. In a hot climate, a shadow can offer relief from the heat of the sun. The Psalmist prays, “Hide me under the shadow of your wings, from the wicked who oppress me, my deadly enemies, who surround me” (Psalm 17:8b-9). But a shadow is fleeting, having little substance of its own, and simply points to the substantive reality that produced it. The Mosaic Law and the salvation offered by the old covenant were only a shadow of the gift of grace offered by Jesus and the new covenant.
The author devotes 10:19 – 13:25 to:
• A call for perseverance (10:19-39)
• The meaning of faith and the faith of Abraham and Moses (11:1-40).
• The example of Jesus (12:1-13).
• Warnings against rejecting God’s grace (12:14-29).
• Service well-pleasing to God (13:1-19).
• and a benediction and final exhortation (13:22-25).
He quotes frequently from the scriptures to lend authority to his arguments. The only scripture at that time was what we now call the Old Testament. The New Testament was in the process of being written.
In this reading, the author quotes from Psalm 40:6-8, which celebrates deliverance from disaster. The Psalmist affirms that God prefers obedience to sacrifices—a remarkable statement given that God instituted animal sacrifices and gave the Israelites detailed instructions on how to offer them.
However, this idea is supported by other scriptures (1 Samuel 15:22; Jeremiah 7:21-23; Psalm 50:8-14; 51:16-17; Hosea 6:6; Amos 5:21-24; and Micah 6:6-8) and simply acknowledges that a person offering sacrifices in compliance with the law might just be going through the motions rather than offering true devotion to Yahweh. Seeking to do the will of Yahweh in all things is a much higher order of devotion than merely observing the sacrificial codes.
But as we say that, we must also acknowledge that the Old Testament sacrificial system was given by God to Israel, and God expected the Israelites to be obedient to his commandments in this respect.
HEBREWS 10:4. IMPOSSIBLE!
4For it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins.
It isn’t the blood of bulls and goats that take away sins, but the grace of God. God instituted the sacrificial system to require Israelites to acknowledge frequently their sins and need of forgiveness. The shed blood and death of the sacrificial animal also reinforced their understanding that their sin was serious business. Without the grace of God, it would be the person rather than the animal whose blood would be shed—and whose death would immediately follow.
HEBREWS 10:5-7. I HAVE COME TO DO THY WILL, O GOD
5Therefore when (Christ) comes into the world, he says,
“Sacrifice and offering you didn’t desire,
but you prepared a body for me;
6You had no pleasure in whole burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin.
7Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come (in the scroll of the book it is written of me) to do your will, O God.’”
In these verses, the author takes the words of the Psalmist and ascribes them to Christ.
“Therefore when he comes into the world, he says, “Sacrifice and offering you didn’t desire” (v. 5a). Jesus is quoting from Psalm 40:6-8. In that psalm, the Psalmist is addressing God. It is God who didn’t desire sacrifice and offering. This might seem nonsensical, given that God prescribed in great detail the sacrifices and offerings that he expected the Israelites to offer. To understand this statement, we would do well to look at Psalm 51, which says:
“For you don’t delight in sacrifice, or else I would give it.
You have no pleasure in burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit.
A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (vv. 16-17).
The point, then, is that God doesn’t delight in sacrifices and offerings, but delights in the broken spirit that comes to God acknowledging sin and asking forgiveness.
“but you prepared (Greek: katartizo) a body (Greek: soma) for me” (v. 5b). The author doesn’t quote Psalm 40 exactly in this verse. The Hebrew of the psalm says, “You have opened (Hebrew: karah) my ears” (Hebrew: ozen). The meaning seems to be that God has opened the psalmist’s ears to hear God’s word.
But the author of Hebrews has changed that line to read, “but you prepared (Greek: katartizo) a body (Greek: soma) for me.” We need to keep in mind that the author is adapting a psalm of David and applying it to Christ. Christ didn’t need his ears opened. He needed a human body so that he could live among us “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14, 17)—so that he could be tempted as we are—so that he could die on the cross as a once-for-all sacrifice so “that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
You had no pleasure in whole burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin (v. 6). This repeats the thought of verse 5a—but a bit more emphatically.
Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come (in the scroll of the book it is written of me) to do your will, O God.’” (v. 7). The psalmist would have given first priority to the Pentateuch—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The last four of these were the great lawgiving books. But the whole Old Testament bears witness to the Messiah, so that would be the “scroll of the book that is written of (Christ).” The Old Testament testifies to the Messiah’s determination to do God’s will.
HEBREWS 10:8-10. HE TAKES AWAY THE FIRST TO ESTABLISH THE SECOND
8 Previously saying, “Sacrifices and offerings and whole burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin you didn’t desire, neither had pleasure in them” (those which are offered according to the law), 9 then he has said, “Behold, I have come to do your will.” He takes away the first, that he may establish the second, 10 by which will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
Previously saying, “Sacrifices and offerings and whole burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin you didn’t desire, neither had pleasure in them” (those which are offered according to the law) (v. 8). This verse sets up a contrast to the following verse—verse 9. In this verse, the author states that God, even though he had established the sacrificial system, found no pleasure in it—for several reasons.
• First, God intended the law to be a “tutor (Greek: paidagogos—tutor, schoolmaster, guardian) to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:24), so it was intended to be temporary—until the Messiah came.
• Second, while quite detailed, the law did not cover every situation. Jesus’ gave a short summary, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment. The second is like this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:30-31; Matthew 22:37-39) that is far more comprehensive—and easier to remember in the bargain.
• Third, the law served the Jewish people, but left out the rest of the world.
• Fourth, the law lent itself to rote observance. It was too seldom graven on people’s hearts. The Psalmist stated the ideal—”I delight to do your will, my God. Yes, your law is within my heart” (Psalm 40:8) and “Yahweh’s law is perfect, restoring the soul…. Moreover by (it) is your servant warned. In keeping (it) there is great reward” (Psalm 19:7, 11). But too few people felt this kind of devotion.
Fifth, the law required recurring animal sacrifices, but “it (was) impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (v. 4). God wanted a once-for-all sacrifice—his Son—whose death and resurrection would be truly effective.
then he has said, “Behold, I have come to do your will.” He takes away the first, that he may establish the second (v. 9). It is Christ who has come to do the Father’s will. He takes away the first (the law), that he might establish the second (his one-time sacrifice on the cross so “that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
by which will we have been sanctified (Greek: hagiazo) through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all (v. 10). The word hagiazo is related to hagios, which means “holy” but is often translated “saint” in the New Testament. The person who is hagiazo is one whose innermost being is characterized by holiness. To become holy, a person must separate him/herself from that which is common. To be holy is to be “called out” from the sinful world into a deep and abiding relationship with God so that the person becomes more God-like—holier—less like the sinful world-at-large.
That is what “the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” accomplished.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Bandstra, Andrew, in Van Harn, Roger E. (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts: The Second Readings, Acts and the Epistles (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001)
Barclay, William, Daily Study Bible: Hebrews (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1976)
Bruce, F.F. The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Epistle to the Hebrews(Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1990)
Cockerill, Gareth Lee, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012)
Cousar, Charles B., in Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; McCann, J. Clinton; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV – Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994)
Craddock, Fred, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 12 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998)
Evans, Louis H., Jr., The Preacher’s Commentary: Hebrews (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1985)
Gench, Frances Taylor, Westminster Bible Commentary: Hebrews and James, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996)
Guthrie, Donald, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: Hebrews, Vol. 15 (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1983)
Holladay, Carl R., Preaching Through the Christian Year C (Valley Forge, Trinity Press, 1994).
Lane, William L., Word Biblical Commentary: Hebrews 9-13, Vol. 47b (Dallas: Word Books, 1991)
Long, Thomas G., Interpretation: Hebrews (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1997)
MacArthur, John, Jr., The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Hebrews (Chicago: The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, 1983)
McKnight, Edgar V., Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Hebrew-James (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2004)
O’Brien, Peter T., Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Letter to the Hebrews (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009)
Pfitzner, Victor C., Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Hebrews (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997)
Copyright 2015, Richard Niell Donovan