Brothers and sisters: Every priest stands daily at his ministry, offering frequently those same sacrificesthat can never take away sins. But this one offered one sacrifice for sins, and took his seat forever at the right hand of God; now he waits until his enemies are made his footstool. For by one offering he has made perfect forever those who are being consecrated. Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer offering for sin. (Hebrews 10:11-14, 18)
Throughout the letter of Hebrews, the writer’s desire is to make clear to Hebrew Christians the superiority of the New Covenant in Christ over the Old Covenant . Everything that came before Christ (the law, the priesthood, and the sacrificial system) were indeed good, very good, but they were only “copies” and “shadows” prefiguring “the good things to come”. Our passage today is the climax of that message, the pinnacle from which he contrasts the daily repeated sacrifices of priests in the temple to the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Christ, he reminds us, died once for all.
The imagery used to show this may escape us for, as N.T. Wright has noted, in our society we most often sit down to do our work and stand when it is finished. Throughout most of history it has been just the opposite. In laboring societies most people stand to work and only get to sit down when that work is completed. So Hebrews notes that “every priest stands daily at his service offering repeatedly…. That is, they are never finished. But “when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins , he sat down at the right hand of God. That is, as Christ himself said on the cross, “It is finished.” (How beautiful those words are when seen in this light)
“Once For All” It is the message not only of this passage but of the whole New Testament. It is at the very heart of the Gospel. Christ died once for the forgiveness of all sin of all people for all time. The beauty and import of this is so staggering that words fail in capturing it. However, here are two quotes that at least come closer than I can:
“The Church, following the apostles, teaches that Christ died for all men without exception: There is not, never has been, and never will be a single human being for whom Christ did not suffer”(Catechism of the Catholic Church, par.605)
“When as Christians we look for assurance that we have truly been forgiven…we look back to the event outside Jerusalem on that dark Friday afternoon, and thank God for what was accomplished fully and finally on our behalf” (N.T. Wright, Hebrews for Everyone, p. 112)
Apart from Christ, all who know and feel their sin, who are weighed down by guilt, become slaves to an endless attempt to make things right, to earn some sort of forgiveness. We are like priests making endless sacrifices and never finished. How can we be? It is never enough. How wonderful, though, that what we could not do for ourselves, Christ has done for us, once for all. It is not what we do, but what he has done: “Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin” (v. 18)
The outcome for all who receive his sacrifice on their behalf with repentance, faith, and baptism is expressed sublimely in the very next verses that follow our passage. Amid some of the most beautiful imagery in scripture, two words stand out of those who know his sacrifice was “once for all”: confidence and assurance. Listen:
Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way which he opened for us through the curtain, that is through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean 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. (10:19-23, emphasis added)
Fred Durham is the President of Alighieri Press and serves as an author and speaker.