February 18, 2018
To understand the heart of this passage, you first need to understand the idea of substitution. Now, that should not be too hard, in principle, as we use substitutes all of the time.
If you are cooking a meal and you realize that you don’t have an ingredient the recipe requires or that you don’t particularly like an ingredient, most of the time a substitution can be made. For example, we don’t drink, so when a recipe calls for beer, we substitute chicken broth.
The same thing can be said about tools. How many times, when the proper tool is not in hand, has that screwdriver been used as a makeshift hammer or pry bar?
When we serve communion, we substitute grape juice for wine out of a concern for the one who might struggle with alcoholism in the congregation.
There are substitute teachers, understudies in theater, body-doubles in movies, and pinch-hitters in baseball. We can vote by proxy, an envoy speaks on behalf of the President, and our Congressmen speak on our behalf. And, then too, there was Leah, a stand in for Rachel…much to Jacob’s dismay.
Substitutes and substitution is a simple idea and it is part of our very culture. It is also part of the way God reconciles us to himself because of our sin.
All of the way back in Genesis 3:17, after Adam and Eve had sinned and God was speaking judgment over them, he said to Adam, “Cursed is the ground because of you…” Why is the ground cursed because of Adam? It is partly because Adam and Eve had been given dominion over creation and thus when they fell, so did the whole created order. It is also partly happened because God never curses one whom he intends to redeem. And thus, the ground is substituted for Adam in terms of the curse. Yet, it does not stop there…
As we read in Hebrews last week, without the shedding of blood there is no remission for sin. And so, God demonstrates the first act of substitutionary sacrifice by clothing Adam and Eve with garments of animal Skin — the death of God’s creature — a visual reminder of the price of sin, which is death.
And with the pattern of blood sacrifice begun by God, from Abel down to Joseph, we see the blood of animals poured out in substitution for the blood of man. According to Josephus, the Jewish historian, by Jesus’ day, approximately 256,500 lambs would be slaughtered on the day of Passover alone. As the people multiplied, the blood multiplied and the ritual practice of shedding animal blood became commonplace. And looking at it all, one had to be left with the conclusion that there needed to be a better way.
And that is exactly the point.
Do you remember the language of Galatians 3:24? That God gave the law to be a kind of harsh schoolmaster over us? That it shows us our inability to keep the Law and our need for a Savior to redeem us? It should perhaps be said that it is only through our utter failures that we really realize the things that we most need to learn.
You’ve probably heard how Edison failed 1,000 times before he came up with a working light bulb, or how Michael Jordan was cut from his High School Basketball team, and that in Chuck Noll’s first year coaching the Pittsburgh Steelers, they only won one game.
Even Abraham Lincon, when he entered the Blackhawk War, began with a commission as Captain and was discharged a Private. He was defeated in his first run at legislature, his first try for congress, he was defeated in his bid to manage the General Land Office, was defeated for Senate in 1854, for Vice Presidency in 1856, and then again for Senate in 1858.
The point is that if you can learn from your failures, are they really failures or are they learning experiences?
Albert Einstein is cited as saying that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result.
The point is that God was inclined to teach his people through the schoolroom of failure and as they looked at all of the blood and gore, with nothing changing and still having a guilty conscience, they realized they needed something better.
By the day of the prophet Isaiah, God was promising the people a Suffering Servant who would pay the penalty for their sins (Isaiah 53). This had been hinted at in Genesis 22 and promised back in Genesis 3:15 when the Seed of the Woman who would crush the head of the serpent was spoken of as receiving a wound himself.
The sad thing is that multitudes of people did not see it…and still do not see it, clinging to old Jewish ways or a promise of resuming sacrifices on a rebuilt altar in Jerusalem.
And so, to drive the matter home, the author of Hebrews writes (verse 1):
“For the law is a shadow of the good things to come” (or literally, that are about to take place).
Just as, if one’s back is to the sun, his shadow reaches the destination before he does, the Law and all of its sacrifices, all of its rituals, all of its food and clothing ways, and in all of its wise counsel, has no substance of its own (it is a shadow) and it only gains its substance from something else…namely, someone else: Jesus Christ.
And because it is a shadow, the author writes:
“It is not the true form of these realities” (it is the image and not the thing itself, and thus “it is powerless to perfect those who draw near by the same yearly sacrifices which they continually offer.”
Do you remember the definition that I gave you for worship? “Drawing near to God according to His Word.”
Yet, Habakkuk 1:13 reminds us that God is unwilling to look with affection on sin.
And so, if we are to draw near to worship him, we must first be cleansed of our sin and the blood of animals just cannot do so. The Law cannot do it and its sacrifices are impotent to bring it about. Why? Because they are a shadow.
“Otherwise, they would never have ceased to be offered up, since the worshippers, having been once cleansed, would not still be conscious of sin.”
And so, if the sacrifices of animals were sufficient we would have a clean conscious with respect to our sin. But our conscience condemns us…
This is the language of 1 John 3:19-22 — does our heart condemn us? John goes on and says that God is greater than our heart…our works and the Law cannot calm our conscience, but God can as we stand before him…
The author goes on in verse 3:
“In these things (these ongoing sacrifices) there is a remembrance of sin every year.”
Our conscience, if relying on men’s works will condemn us over and over again…every time. And worse yet, our neighbors will throw our failures back in our faces — it is what the Devil uses to undermine our assurance of salvation. We need something greater than the blood of substitute animals…
Why? Verse 4:
“Because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to cut off our sins from before us.”
Now, verses 5-7 are a quote from Psalm 40:6-8. But before we go into this text, I need to remind you of something you already know well. 2 Timothy 3:16, Paul writes that the scriptures are “breathed out” by God. And in 2 Peter 1:21, we are reminded that it was produced by faithful men (prophets and apostles) who were “moved along” or “blown along” by the Holy Spirit. It was not a product of the interpretation of men (the previous verse), instead, it is the Spirit of the Almighty that makes man understand (Job 32:8). Hence Jesus teaches in Parables (Matthew 13:10-17).
And so, when we speak about the Scriptures, we speak about them as being inerrant and infallible. Infallible in that they cannot fail in wha they set out to do and inerrant meaning that they are without error and without the possibility of error in what they address.
Why is this important in this passage… it is to remind you that 1) when we see what appears to be an error or a contradiction, the error is in our inability to understand, not in the text and 2) that when we see things not jiving, we must not seek to interpret it on our own, but to let the texts interpret themselves…this is what defines the Reformed approach to the Scriptures: because they are God’s word, we submit our minds to the text, we do not submit the texts to our minds.
You have heard all of this before, but here is a place where it is important… you see, Hebrews 10:5 and Psalm 40:6 don’t completely line up…so what do we do with that? You may be tempted to say, “Is it that big of a deal?” Yes, it is, because we and our kids especially are being bombarded by people who say that the Bible is filled with mistakes and we have an obligation to make a reasoned defense for the hope we have in Christ…and that roots itself in the authority of Scripture.
Hear the two passages back to back:
Hebrews 10:5 reads:
“Therefore, coming into the world, he said, ‘Sacrifices and offerings you have not wanted, but a body you created for me.’”
Psalm 40:6 (part 1) reads:
“Sacrifice and offering you have not desired, but you have given me an open ear.”
So, what’s going on? Do understand that some people would say, “Well, the author just misquoted…he messed up the text.” And they would use that to justify their view that the Bible has contradictions and errors. But there is another answer…
And the answer begins with the fact that while our English Bibles are translated from the original Hebrew manuscripts, the author of Hebrews is quoting from the Greek Septuagint.
Now, the Greek Septuagint is not an inspired text, it is simply a translation for curious Greeks and diaspora Jews who could no longer read Hebrew. With that in mind, though, when making a translation, one question you must always ask is how will my target audience understand the figures of speech and idioms that the original text contains. Some things can me taken and translated literally, but figures of speech are different. If I told my Ukrainian students it was raining cats and dogs, they would just look at me confused. If a Hebrew man told you that you had a long nose, you might think about Pinocchio and be insulted, but in Hebrew, a long nose is a mark of being patient and is meant as a compliment. You get my point.
So, these Hebrew translators in about the 4th century BC were asking themselves, how do I communicate what this psalm is saying in a way that a Greek person could understand.
So, what is being communicated here and how is an “open ear” and a “body” connected?
Let’s start with the Hebrew text…what does an ear do? It hears, but it does not ear things, it is the organ by which you begin to understand…remember the language of Isaiah 6:9-10? When God speaks of ears being dull and unhearing, he means they do not hear the message and respond to it. So, in the Hebrew language, open ears are ears that hear in such a way that the person obeys…ears of obedience you might say. This, of course, fits the context as well, for God is saying that he hates the sacrifices because the people are just going through the motions and that their lives are not laid out in obedience to His Law.
How do ears and bodies then connect? With what do you show your obedience? Our bodies…as we live out our lives before the Lord.
Why is this significant? It is significant because the offering — the substitute — must be pure and undefiled. If Jesus were to sacrifice himself as our substitutionary offering, that meant that he had to live a perfect life as to the Law — both actively and passively. God takes no pleasure in the whole system of burnt offerings (verse 6) not because he has not commanded them, but because people are just going through the motions.
But, when the Messiah comes…(verse 7):
“Behold, I have come to do your will, O God, as it is written in the scroll of the book.” Perfect obedience…
Thus, Jesus repeatedly said things like:
“My food is to do the will of him who sent me” (John 4:34)
“I seem not my own will but the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38)
And what is the will of Him sho sent Jesus?
The next verse: “that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me…”
He did this through his obedience, through his perfect sacrifice, and through a sacrifice that cleanses our conscience and gives us assurance that none — no, not even one — of those whom the Father has elected, will be lost.
And, in Jesus’ words and works (not our own) we can know that salvation is at hand.
Yet, there is one more thing that I’d like to set before you as we close this morning…
God’s aim for his elect is to conform us into the likeness of Christ (Romans 8:28). And that process, something we call sanctification, is a process in which we participate by seeking to imitate Christ’s obedience (what Calvin called the “Third Use of the Law”). But, how will we know what to obey if we do not study the Bible closely?
As God spoke to Joshua: “set the word of God before you day and night — meditate on it, for then (and only then) will you flourish and be successful.” Not according to the world, but according to God and his Word.