This quotation is the summary in Hebrews of the weakness of the Law of Moses in respect to its sacrifices. It is one of several passages in which the Mosaic code of Divine worship is spoken of as a temporary tool of education and not intended to be the permanent institution. It was a shadow of the true substance. Speaking of the Aaronic priests, the writer of Hebrews says that “they serve unto the example and shadow of heavenly things” (8:5). In respect to the Tabernacle, Paul describes it as a “worldly sanctuary”, a “figure for the time then present” (Heb 9:1,9). In a more general description of the Mosaic code the apostle says it was “a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ” (Col 2:17).

The Body is of Christ

A shadow may provide a general outline of its substance, but proportions and composition will remain as unclear. In our case the substance is Christ and his work of redemption for mankind, according to his Father’s purpose. The mass of details given for the construction of the Tabernacle with all its fabrics and skins and embroidery, the posts and sockets and ties, the unique furniture of the Holy and Most Holy Places, the different animals of different ages and genders, for various days, months and annual events provided a vast field for research and meditation.

The types were all there, but how we could relate them to the antitype, to “the body”, to Christ in his saving work, was obviously a difficult study in which many details would remain unresolved. And if that is still true for us, two thousand years after the Lord has come and revealed the true substance, then how much more true was it before the advent of Jesus, the Son of God? The apostle Peter tells us that even with the more expansive statement of the prophets and psalms, those before Christ groped to comprehend the work of God in Messiah. He tells us that even the angels “desired to look into” the times and matters relating to the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow” (1Peter1:10–12).

An Obvious but Important Observation

When we discuss matters of atonement it is inevitable that some of our common expressions reflect the language of the Law of Moses. “The law”, says the apostle Paul, “is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good” (Rom 7:12). It is perfectly reasonable that the language and matters of the Law, especially relating to its priesthood and sacrifices be part of discussion on the subject of atonement. But is it likely that detail will be clearer in the Law than in the writings of the New Covenant specifically written that we may see and comprehend the great work of God and His redeeming Son? Would we resort to the shadow institution to elucidate important aspects of the Redeemer’s work? Would there likely be a better, a clearer outline amidst the mass of legal details than in the direct, plain statements of the apostles as they write of the Lord of life in the Gospels and letters? Will the type determine the antitype? Will the shadow say to the substance, “you must conform to my specifications?”

In the Hour of Dispute

Even more relevant is the question, when brethren discuss important issues of the atonement, is it wise for the terms of their discussion to be drawn from the Law? Surely it is wiser to move out of the shadows and into the clearest language we can find that speaks to us of the mind, the heart, of the Lord Jesus in the days of his flesh when the great drama of the atonement was played out in his life, death and resurrection. However enjoyable it is to discuss the Law given by Moses—“Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law”—when there is controversy surely it is better to use plain language without our argument made to rest on types, shadows and figures of speech. The object of the discussion is to resolve dispute, to bring together, with clarity of mind and expression.

Are not many of us prepared to admit that sometimes we have been all too loyal to a form of ambiguous expressions that were rooted in the shadow institution, where figures of speech, too, were obviously meaning different things to different people?

This is not to say that all earlier controversy has been just a matter of words. It most certainly was not. In 1864 Brother Robert Roberts contended against the teaching of Edward Turney that there were no inherited consequences for mankind and Christ as a consequence of the sin in Eden. In 1894 Brother Roberts was facing the opposite extreme when John Andrew published his views that we and Christ were born into a state of wrath before God. He said that we are alienated from God because we inherit human nature. Brother Andrew also alleged that unless baptised we could not be raised from the dead, even if enlightened by the Truth. We owe a great deal to our Brother Roberts for his valiant labours and wisdom in discerning these two divergent paths of teaching, and maintaining the middle course of truth. In our own Australian circumstances we have great respect for brother John Carter in the 1950s for the clarity and simplicity that he brought to the atonement discussion; and for his courage to express things in Scriptural terms and get to the root, the substance, of the issues involved. Years of controversy can create their own verbal jungle; without doubt Brother Carter helped the Australian ecclesias to see their way out of that maze. We thank God for his work.

Comparison or Contrast?

“The law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Gal 3:24). It has been said that the Law was, by type and example, showing us what was coming in Christ. There is no doubt that the statutes and procedures of the Law had aspects that foreshadowed Christ. Comparisons and parallels are there indeed, but with the parallels there are significant differences. We can remember from Sunday School days the various items of the Passover feast and their comparison with aspects of our commemoration of “the Lamb of God who taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29; 1 Cor 5:7–8). All through the Law of Moses we see comparisons or types that lead us to Christ with parallel thoughts.

Yet when we come to the book of Hebrews, which was specifically written to extricate Jewish Christians from slavery to the Law, we find an emphasis not on the comparison with Christ but with how the Law contrasts with the facts concerning Christ. Hebrews contrasts the authority of angels to the authority of the Son of God (chapter 1). Hebrews contrasts the servant Moses with the obedient Son (3:1–6). It contrasts high priest Aaron with the great High Priest, Jesus the Son of God (Heb 4:14–16). Almost every aspect of Aaron’s appointment is contrasted with that of Jesus (chapters 5–7). The Old Covenant is contrasted with the New Covenant (chapter 8). The Mosaic tabernacle is contrasted with Christ, the “greater, and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands” (9:1–11).

In a grand and graphic section the animal sacrifices under the Law are contrasted with “the better sacrifices” of Christ and the all-encompassing results and permanence of the latter (chapters 9:11–10:18). Sinai is contrasted with the New Jerusalem and faith in Christ eclipses law in Moses (chapters 11–12).

What can we say to all these apostolic comments? Obviously the contrasts overwhelm the comparison. The items or subjects may be the same but from then on the contrast in details is profound and immensely significant. That is the purpose of Paul’s writing to the Hebrews. Why should anyone in Christ wish to return to the Mosaic code when what they had in Christ was so much “better”? How could any institution compare with that where the Son of God is the central figure? How could Aaron the son of Amram be priest after the fashion of God’s own Son? How could “the blood of bulls and goats” compare to the blood of Christ, who “through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God”? In a sublime under-statement the writer to the Hebrews insists, “it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins” (10:4).

“Without Blemish”

This is the standard requirement of the sacrifices under the Law of Moses; more than forty times this expression is employed. A case in point is the sin offering that Aaron was to offer for himself on the grand day of inauguration, the eighth and final day of his consecration (Lev 9:2, 8). The bull calf was to be “without blemish”; it was a physically sound animal. Yet this was for Aaron’s sins, his transgressions, his “blemishes”. When Aaron stood there with knife in hand what did he think? It was his sins for which he offered, not for those of the calf! The calf was “without blemish” and knew nothing about sin. How could Aaron feel right about putting his guilt upon the calf? How does the conscience feel about that!

Here was the limitation of the Law. Aaron wasn’t the victim, he couldn’t be because the “blemish” of sin was his and the proper sacrifice was to be without blemish! Wasn’t that teaching Aaron that he was actually powerless to effect the true and final atonement for sins? Could a holy and sinless God accept something of blemish? Absolute perfection was His standard in all things. Aaron must have seen all this as he stood with his young bull calf on that day. “This calf is in a sense irrelevant to the issue! It is my blemish that is the fault, my transgressions are the problem”. Hardly a procedure for the purging of conscience! (Heb 9:14)

Seven days before, in the preparation for his consecration, the same issue was starkly before him. His younger brother Moses took water and washed him and his four sons with water (Lev 8:6). They were sinners and not “without blemish”! Someone else had to wash them, someone outside of the Aaronic priesthood! This Moses also enrobed them and anointed them and slew their sin offering, for Aaron and his sons, who placed their hands upon the bullock (Lev 8:7–14). This High Priest was incapable of making his own sacrifices for sin. Why? Because he had blemish!

Was the bullock or the calf capable of providing the atonement? Neither the priest nor the animal sacrifice could do the job. The deficiencies of the Law were there for all to behold.

In thunderous tones Yahweh was using the “schoolmaster” to teach that there would be a fitting High Priest among men, who would take away their sins and this one would be “without blemish”, without transgression, sinless indeed. If the lesson wasn’t already apparent, then before the end of the final eighth day two of Aaron’s sons lay dead upon the floor of the tabernacle! This was the first day of their ministry! The two most prominent young men of the nation struck dead because of sin, right in the middle of the Tabernacle of Moses! (Lev 10:1–3). Aaron was dumbfounded, the ceremony interrupted, and Moses was desperately trying to restore the function of the priesthood in the confusion and uncleanness of death! The priests never partook of the people’s sin offering, as was commanded, because the High Priest’s family was in disarray through sin (Lev 10:16–19). In that sense the people’s sin offering was not received by God. The Law by omission and by failure, by contrast was pointing the need for something better, something without spot or blemish.

Our Privileges in Christ

This cannot be better summarised than in these sublime statements in the epistle to the Hebrews. Every word is relevant and measured!

“How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (Heb 9:14)

“Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh; and having an 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” (Heb 10:19–22).

Comparison or contrast? The lessons for all of us are here.