The tenth chapter of Hebrews really needs to be considered all together. In this chapter we find a great deal of the theology of our author coming together as part of an integrated whole. If we step back and get the big picture, we will see more than just the tenth chapter—we will begin to see the entire book. In this chapter we have one of the best examples found in Scripture where the meaning of the text cannot be ascertained apart from the immediate historical context. Not only is this the case, but when that context is explained and set out, many blurry things in the book of Hebrews suddenly come into sharp focus. It is like watching an impressionist painting turn into a painting from the photo-realism school. In order to get at this, it is best to read through the entire chapter at one go.
“For the law, having a shadow of the good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with these same sacrifices, which they offer continually year by year, make those who approach perfect. For then would they not have ceased to be offered? For the worshipers, once purified, would have had no more consciousness of sins. But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins. Therefore, when He came into the world, He said: ‘Sacrifice and offering You did not desire, but a body You have prepared for Me. In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin You had no pleasure. Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come—In the volume of the book it is written of Me—To do Your will, O God.’’ Previously saying, ‘Sacrifice and offering, burnt offerings, and offerings for sin You did not desire, nor had pleasure in them’ (which are offered according to the law), then He said, “Behold, I have come to do Your will, O God.” He takes away the first that He may establish the second. By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God, from that time waiting till His enemies are made His footstool. For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified. But the Holy Spirit also witnesses to us; for after He had said before, ‘This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put My laws into their hearts, and in their minds I will write them,’ then He adds, ‘Their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.’ Now where there is remission of these, there is no longer an offering for sin. Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh, and having a High Priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching. For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries. Anyone who has rejected Moses’ law dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be thought worthy who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know Him who said, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord. And again, ‘The Lord will judge His people.’ It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. But recall the former days in which, after you were illuminated, you endured a great struggle with sufferings: partly while you were made a spectacle both by reproaches and tribulations, and partly while you became companions of those who were so treated; for you had compassion on me in my chains, and joyfully accepted the plundering of your goods, knowing that you have a better and an enduring possession for yourselves in heaven. Therefore do not cast away your confidence, which has great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that after you have done the will of God, you may receive the promise: ‘For yet a little while, and He who is coming will come and will not tarry. Now the just shall live by faith; but if anyone draws back, My soul has no pleasure in him.’ But we are not of those who draw back to perdition, but of those who believe to the saving of the soul (Heb. 10:1-39).
Now shadows of the reality cannot do what the reality can. The true sacrifice cannot be offered in the outer sanctuary—that is reserved for the inner Most Holy Place. In the first four verses of this chapter we have a reiteration of what we have been learning in the ninth chapter—the repetition of the Levitical sacrifices reveals the problem with it. These sacrifices were a successful shadow (vv. 1-4). The shadows repeat themselves, and as they do so, they are being good shadows. But they are also revealing that they are not the reality.
Even though these blood sacrifices were offered according to the law (and therefore were according to God’s will), God still told the people in Psalm 40:6-8 that He had no pleasure in the sacrifices. He followed this with Christ saying that He had come to do God’s will, to do God’s pleasure. This indicates the priority that Christ’s sacrifice has over that of bulls and goats. God takes away the animal sacrifices to replace them with the once for all sacrifice of Christ (vv. 5-9).
Those who have been blessed with the grace of God described here have been made perfect forever. When God fulfilled His pleasure, the result was a perfect setting apart of His people. Consider: “By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (v. 10). “For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified” (v. 14). We have a perfect sanctification—a definitive sanctification.
Christ has been seated at God’s right hand. This seating indicates: 1. He is waiting for His enemies to be made His footstool (vv. 12-13); 2. He has sanctified a certain class of people forever (vv. 10, 14); 3. He has established the new covenant (vv. 16-17); and 4. He has annihilated sin offerings (v. 18). This last is crucial for understanding verse 26.
The end result is a sprinkled heart. The result of this theology is confidence before the throne of God. The blood of Jesus has opened the veil to the Holy of Holies, which is the flesh of Jesus. Now we have a High Priest forever, and we are exhorted to draw near with full assurance. Our hearts have been sprinkled with the blood, and our bodies have been washed in baptism. So we are to hold fast, not so that we can be faithful, but rather because He is faithful. This and only this is the basis of love, good works and church attendance (vv. 24-25).
Now this is the place where context matters so much, and where, if we grasp that context, the lights come on. Remember that the elect have been made perfect forever. But we still must deal with those who are covenantally attached to Christ, but who do not know Him in truth. The “sinning willfully” cannot be understood apart from the context of the first century, at which time some Christian Jews were attempting to go back to the blood of bulls and goats (v. 26). They are warned (again) that Jerusalem is going to burn—no sense going back there (v. 27).
Contrast two differently contextualized paraphrases of verse 26:
Time –anywhere in Christian history: “For if we sin willfully by reading Penthouse after we have received the knowledge of the truth that to do so is a violation of the 7th commandment and the Sermon on the Mount, there no longer remains a sacrifice for our lustful sins, meaning that Jesus didn’t die for heart-adulterers like us, but all that awaits us is a certain fearful expectation of the final judgment, and the fiery indignation of Hell which will devour the adversaries” (v. 26).
Time — c. 66 A.D. just before the war broke out that destroyed Jerusalem, prophesied by Jesus to happen within one generation of 30 A.D. In other words, when Hebrews was written, about ten minutes to midnight. “For if we sin willfully by returning to the Levitical sacrifices, which must be offered in Jerusalem (which means in turn that we have to get on the boat and go there, just in time for the war), after we have received the knowledge of the truth that Christ died once for all, putting an end to these repetative sacrifices in doomed Jerusalem, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins back in Jerusalem where we are thinking to go, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, catapults, Roman armies, forests of crucified Jews, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries, as Jesus prophesied” (v. 26).
An illustration I have used before is this: suppose the gift of prophecy were still operative today, and a prophet stood up in our church and predicted that within two years Salt Lake City was going to be destroyed by a giant meteor. We know that our prophet is a good guy named Agabus, so we know this is going to happen. Then, in a masterpiece of bad timing, a college student in our church with a Mormon background announces that his family has told him that if he forgets all this evangelical, born-again business, they will set him up in business (in Salt Lake City), get him a cute LDS wife, and really take care of him. For various reasons, let us say that our young man is wavering, and he is really considering it. Now of course, we are concerned about his soul. But our pleading with him is going to be greatly affected by our knowledge that he was contemplating moving to a city that was going to be squashed by a giant rock from space within a matter of months. We are not just concerned about judgment at the end of the world (though that is an important part of all this), but we are also concerned about temporal, historical judgment, about to happen, here and now. This is exactly the kind of situation that the author of Hebrews was facing. Some Jewish Christians suddenly start to waver in their faith, and are thinking of going back to Jerusalem to worship, when that city was on the very threshold of her destruction. And the whole Christian church knew of that pending destruction — Jesus could not have been plainer. The mid to late sixties was a bad time to take up the practice of sacrificing bulls and goats in the Temple at Jerusalem.
We see in all this that the new covenant contains fearful curses indeed—far worse than the curses of the old covenant. It is a fearful thing for a covenant member to fall into the hands of the living God (vv. 29-31). We are warned of a far worse punishment than the Jews of the older covenant faced. So we are to live up to what we have already attained. Notice the exhortation here. The author of Hebrews tells them to recall “the former days.” They are not told to pry into the Book of Life to try to find out if they are elect. Our election is confirmed to our knowledge here, in this life, by how we live (vv.32-39).