A Superior Sacrifice: Hebrews

The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews also approaches the reason for Christ in terms of his superiority to the law. The nature of this superiority, however, is radically different from that of the Fourth Gospel.


Unlike the Fourth Gospel’s focus on knowing God, Hebrews is interested in affirming that believers do indeed have an excellent reason to believe that they can approach God with confidence in the troubled times in which they live. Since nothing defiled in either body or mind can attain God’s presence, the required confidence is engendered by a “cleansed conscience,” which can only be found through Christ’s superior sacrifice.

(The Muse of Sarcasm is upon me. The full title of this work is The Epistle of Paul to the Hebrews. Except for the fact that it is not an epistle, it was not written by Paul, and it is not addressed to the Hebrews, this is an excellent title.)

Now, back to business.

According to Hebrews, the law states that “almost everything is purified by blood and without blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb 9:22). But the offerings of blood under the law were deficient in two ways. First, the law was “only the shadow of the good things to come and not the very image of them” (Heb 10:1-3). This meant that the offerings had to be repeated yearly. In contrast, Christ did not offer himself repeatedly (Heb 9:26, 28):

[for] if that were so, he would have had to suffer repeatedly from the foundation of the world. But now once for all he has appeared at the end of the ages to take away sin by his sacrifice.

Second, the efficacy of these offerings under the law was also inferior in the sense that “the blood of bulls and goats could never take away sin” (Heb 10:4). In fact, the law was limited in the “present time” to (Heb 9:9-10):

gifts and sacrifices…that cannot perfect the worshiper in conscience 10 but only in matters of food and drink and various ritual washings: regulations concerning the flesh, imposed until the time of the new order.

In contrast, Christ’s work is superior in at least five ways: (1) a superior high priest, (2) a superior offering, (3) a superior (heavenly) sanctuary, (4) a superior manner of making the sacrifice, that is, not through fire but “through the holy Spirit and (5) a superior result (a cleansed conscience and service to God):

11 But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that have come to be, passing through the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made by hands, that is, not belonging to this creation, 12 he entered once for all into the sanctuary, not with the blood of goats and calves but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.

13 For if the blood of goats and bulls and the sprinkling of a heifer’s ashes can sanctify those who are defiled so that their flesh is cleansed, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from dead works to worship a living God.

The expression “dead works” should not be read in opposition to something like “works of faith.” It is a reference to idolatry, the worship of things that do not live. Its opposite is worship of the living God.

The law, then, was good, successfully doing what it was asked to do. But better things were to come, in a “greater and more perfect tabernacle.” Since Christ’s offering was so superior, believers may be confident that they can approach the throne of grace for present needs (Heb 4:16) as well as rest assured of a future in the heavenly Jerusalem (Heb 12:18-24).

6 Replies to “A Superior Sacrifice: Hebrews”

  1. Use of the imagery of sacrifice is rarely found in modern works of speculative theology.

    Although I don’t know much about it, it is my impression that this is not really a recent trend. For example, as early as 1695, John Locke argued that the only requirement of Christian faith was in Christ’s messiahship. The whole idea of sacrifice is pretty much missing. (Locke, Reasonableness of Christianity).

    Sacrifice does remain an integral part of Catholic sacramental theology. I must also add that I find it hard to believe that a theology without sacrifice can be judged adequate against the NT. On the other hand, the absence of that sort of standard is usually oonsidered a feature rather than a bug among those whose interests lie in this direction.

  2. It’s nice to see John Locke’s theological work finally discussed in the Bloggernacle! Locke and Hobbes are two religious thinkers that I know reasonably well; makes me feel like a member of the club for once.

    Locke’s actually an interesting case; while he certainly wants to think of Jesus as the Messiah and the Savior, he adopts a very modern definition of those terms. Jesus is a Savior because He established the “law of faith” and (somehow) produced the resurrection. But, for Locke, the idea of Jesus as Messiah didn’t mean that Jesus was divine; Locke evidently shared Isaac Newton’s rather unorthodox conception of Jesus.

    On the other hand, in terms of Christian theology, Locke is still relatively recent–only about 300 years ago. And the introduction to my volume of the Reasonableness of Christianity credits him as the inventor of the ideas in question.

    By the way, people interested in reading Locke’s fascinating book can get it for free online here.

  3. Ah, you know, I’m no expert either. It’s on my list of things to look into, but it’s not near the top!

    Yes, as I understand it the Enlightenment touched this area as well. First, there’s a real hesitation to suggest that Christ’s work affected God at all. Instead, ways are sought to explain it as something that happens to us.

    Then there’s the whole idea of a bloody sacrifice. Not a very PC approach. And finally, there’s the fact that the reports of Jesus’ death really don’t say much about the blood, and the Gospels don’t report any manipulation of it as was the custom in the OT cult.

    Hebrews gets around the last point by locating the event in the heavenly tabernacle, but it still has the most concentrated sacrificial imagery in the NT. In Paul, there’s maybe one or two references to “expiation” and lots of statements that the death of Christ was “for us.”

    I think the Prots tend to read the “for us” as OT sacrificial references, while Catholics sometimes read them “under” the martyr themes of Macabees. In the end, the martyr imagery probably also goes back to the OT as well.

    Anyway, when the metaphor used to talk about Christ’s death is expiation, I agree it’s a reading of the OT through the lens of the NT. Or so I think at the moment.

  4. RT,

    Sorry, I just pulled your comment out of the moderation queue.

    I really don’t know much more about it than the fragments I had to got to read for a theology class.

    I think Locke’s denial of Christ’s divinity did set something of a trend. A denial of Christ’s divinity coheres well with a denial of salvific significance in his death because, well, it was just another guy who died.

    I guess I’ll to use the link and remind myself why Locke thinks God resurrected Jesus, though. The NT usually thinks about that question in terms of Jesus’ absolute fidelity in death, but I don’t remember Locke’s thoughts.

  5. Grace is to sacrifice as atonement is to suffering. The problem with classic Christian orthodoxy is they do not believe that Christ really suffered – divine impassibility all the way.

    Now remember Paul said that we can only become joint heirs with Christ if it so be that we *suffer* with him. No suffering sacrifice on our part, no exaltation.

    Suffering and sacrifice make no sense in an absolutist conception of God, with a bottomless fount of grace established at no cost whatsoever. Sacrifice is ultimately the metaphysical connection between the doctrine of works, or Christian service, and the doctrine of grace.

    We do not save ourselves by our own works, rather it is the sacrifice of others, Jesus Christ in particular that saves us. Grace is the manifestation of other’s righteous sacrifice.

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