“And the priest shall make atonement for them, and they shall be forgiven.” This is the recurring phrase of Leviticus 4. Atonement for the individual, forgiveness of sins, these are ideas embedded in the sacrificial system of the Old Testament. Even while we acknowledge the place of purification of the temple, we must still reckon with the atonement for individuals in Leviticus. How can the author of Hebrews say that it is “impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb. 10:4), when that seems to be precisely what Leviticus 4 is teaching us? The answer lies in the repetition of the sacrifices under the Old Covenant. The repetitive nature of the sacrificial ritual means that it never finally and fully takes away sin.
We saw in a previous post how the geography of holiness helps us understand the importance of purifying the temple by means of the sacrifices. This is an often overlooked and profound element of the sacrificial system in Leviticus. Sin contaminates everything and pollutes the world around it. So, even the purification offering in Leviticus 4 should not be reduced merely to the purification of the Tabernacle. There is still a place for atonement for the individual sinner too. Commentator Derek Tidball, following the brilliant Nobuyoshi Kiuchi says:
In a thorough study of the issue, N. Kiuchi points out that the pronouncements of forgiveness are quite explicit. They say that when the priest has made atonement it is the person who is forgiven. It is personal language, the language of “he,” “she,” and “they.” The priest does not say, “the sin shall be forgiven,” still less that the sanctuary will be purged, but that the offender is forgiven. Violating God’s commands, Kiuchi underlines, incurs a real guilt on the part of the sinner, not just a subjective feeling of guilt … The sin offering is designed to restore the sinner, remove the guilt and deal with all the consequences of sin, not just its pollution of the sanctuary (The Message of Leviticus, 81).
Personalized pronouncements of atonement occur throughout Leviticus 4 (v. 20; 26; 31; 35), and even into chapter 5 (6; 10; 13). Purification of the objects of the temple and the space of worship and ritual is a part of our explanation of the disparity between Hebrews and Leviticus, yet it is not a sufficient answer. We must also deal with the reality of forgiveness and atonement applied to the individual.
How can the author of Hebrews, writing to Hebrews, who knew their Old Testament well, possibly make the case that the “blood of bulls and goats” can never take away sin? It is the blood of bulls and goats, after all, that is said to make “atonement for them.” The author of Hebrews gives us more details to help us discern his point. The context around verse 4 of Hebrews 10 helps us. We read:
For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. 2 Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? 3 But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. 4 For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. (Heb. 10:1-4)
The emphasis for the writer of Hebrews is on the recurring nature of the sacrifices. These sacrifices are “continually offered every year,” they never “ceased to be offered,” and they serve as a “reminder of sins every year.” The impossibility of the blood of bulls and goats to take away sin is found in their repetition. They are contrasted, by the author of Hebrews, with the sacrifice of Christ which is offered “once and for all”. He writes:
11 And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices,which can never take away sins. 12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13 waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. (Heb. 10:11-14)
Christ’s sacrifice makes perfect, as is evidenced by its finality. Christ is not sacrificed daily, but only once and then He sits down at the right hand of God, having completed the work. He cries from the cross “it is finished” because it is (John 19:30). The priests offered repeatedly “the same sacrifices,” Jesus offered once the perfect sacrifice of His body. If all of this is true, if the blood of bulls and goats cannot really take away sins, what then can we say it actually accomplishes?
The sacrifices do offer atonement, but it is not final. The text of Leviticus tells us that these sacrifices make “atonement” for the people of God and so we should believe what it says. But in wrestling with the content of Hebrews we must acknowledge that the author of Hebrews has a more realized meaning in mind when he speaks of “taking away sin.” He means the complete, full, and final removal of sin from the believer. The Levitical sacrifices do not do this, they are a temporary means by which man may enter into the presence of God, but though the immediate sin has been dealt with, He is himself still sinful. He needs a more full work to completely remove the stain of sin upon him. That, God provides in the perfect sacrificial lamb.
Leviticus and Hebrews do not contradict one another, but they do offer different emphases. We must acknowledge the valuable role that the sacrifices of the Old Covenant played in maintaining a way for sinful man to be in relationship with a holy God. Yet, ultimately it is only the sacrifice of Christ which completely transforms the sinner and truly takes away, for good, His sin. The blood of bulls and goats can only temporarily address man’s sin, but it cannot fully take it away.