Perhaps we think of this as a rather minor affair, but God shows that He has, and we must have, respect for the life of an animal. In His instructions on the subject of the regular sacrifices, God commands us not to eat the blood! The blood must be drained on the ground and not imbibed by a human being. He does this out of respect for the animal, for its life is in the blood even as ours is.
Animals have at least a low level of feeling. They experience fear; situations can frighten them. And who will say that one's pet, a dog or a cat, does not have a special relationship or feeling for him or her? Certainly, it does.
Can we extend that to include a bullock, goat, sheep, kid of the goats, or a lamb as having feelings too? To be sure, they do not have human feelings. Nevertheless, they have life, and in the sacrifices, they symbolize—every single one of them—the life of Jesus Christ. How many animals had to give their lives to make a witness and an example of His sinlessness, His approach to life, or His payment for our sins? We will never know; but just to give an approximate idea, Josephus records that, when he lived in the middle of the first century, the Romans took a census of all of the lambs that were killed in Jerusalem for Passover one year. They tallied 256,000 lambs killed for just one Passover observance—more than a quarter million lambs died to illustrate a lesson!
Perhaps it would help us to understand why God tells the Israelites in Exodus 12 that keeping Passover should be a family affair. It was not to be done at the Temple or Tabernacle. In His instructions, God specifies that nearly every family should kill its own lamb (Exodus 12:3-4). He desires to make the point to every individual that he is responsible for the death of the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ!
However, consider this: The overwhelming majority of those Israelite families were not rich. Most of them had only small flocks and herds, so they had just a few sheep and very few lambs. In most cases, they lived with their animals, and whenever they put a lamb to death on Passover, it was quite likely the family pet! They killed something very close to them, a living thing to which they had emotional attachments. Millions of beloved pets died over centuries! Perhaps this can provide us more insight to see that nothing is too great a price for God to pay for us.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Awesome Cost of Love
This passage makes a distinct statement about the comparison between Christ and everything or everyone who came before He arrived on earth to complete the work of God. Jesus' teaching, leadership, and personal example is reality compared to the misty shadows cast by everything else.
The key term throughout Hebrews, then, is “better.” The author uses the comparative “better” a number of critical times: Hebrews 1:4 (“so much better than the angels”); Hebrews 7:19 (“a better hope”); Hebrews 7:22; 8:6 “(a better covenant”); Hebrews 8:6 (“better promises”); Hebrews 9:23 (“better sacrifices”); Hebrews 10:34 (“a better and enduring possession”); Hebrews 11:16 (“a better . . . country”); Hebrews 11:35 (“a better resurrection”); and Hebrews 11:40 (“something better”).
Not only is “better” emphasized, but “greatness” is also mentioned several times: Hebrews 2:3 (“so great a salvation”); Hebrews 4:14 (“a great High Priest”); Hebrews 7:4 (“how great this man was”); Hebrews 9:11 (“the greater and more perfect Tabernacle”); Hebrews 10:32 (“a great struggle with sufferings”); Hebrews 10:35 (“great reward”); Hebrews 12:1 (“so great a cloud of witnesses”); and Hebrews 13:20 (“that great Shepherd of the sheep”).
The author draws the Hebrews' attention to the contrast between what they gave up in converting and what they gained: Christians have “a great High Priest” (Hebrews 4:14); “an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast” (Hebrews 6:19); and an exclusive altar (Hebrews 13:10). Christians are also exhorted to look forward to “the world to come” (Hebrews 2:5); to “the age to come” (Hebrews 6:5); to the New Covenant being made with the united houses of Israel and Judah (Hebrews 8:10); to “the good things to come” (Hebrews 9:11); to Christ's second appearing for salvation (Hebrews 9:28); to the receipt of the promise at His coming (Hebrews 10:36-37); and to a future heavenly city (Hebrews 11:14-16; 13:14).
Everywhere a reader turns within Hebrews, by means of sheer repetition of comparisons revealing the superiority of Christ, Christianity, and the New Covenant, he or she is quietly but forcefully drawn to one overriding reality. The center of Judaism was the Temple, the priesthood, and the sacrifices, all of which were fine teachers and good experiences as God intended them. Even so, they are not what God desires for His children at this time within His purpose. They are not good enough for His children now. The author writes in Hebrews 8:4-6, 13:
For if He were on earth, He would not be a priest, since there are priests who offer the gifts according to the law; who serve the copy and shadow of the heavenly things, as Moses was divinely instructed when he was about to make the tabernacle. For He said, “See that you make all things according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.” But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry inasmuch as He is also Mediator of a better covenant, which was established on better promises. . . . In that He says, “A new covenant,” He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.
Though the Jewish converts were indeed deprived of the distinctive symbols of the past, they were but shadows, symbols, mere copies of heavenly things. Through God's calling and the gifts He provides, they were then, as we are today, dealing with realities and preparing for the realities of eternal life in the Kingdom of God.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Why Hebrews Was Written (Part Three)
Part of the problem with animal sacrifices is that a consciousness of sins remains. The Israelites went through the ceremony, but spiritually, nothing happened. Christ's sacrifice, though, includes the removal of sins from consciousness, which is implied in the role of the azazel but not actually accomplished. Along these lines, the author of Hebrews notes three times that Christ's sacrifice cleanses the conscience (Hebrews 9:9, 14; 10:22).
Hebrews 10:4 uses significant wording when speaking of taking away sins. The Greek word, aphaireo, has familiar meanings and implications. Its basic meaning is “to remove,” while it can also be translated as “cut off.” The author uses terminology that exactly describes the azazel, the goat of “complete removal” (as The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon renders it) that bears the sins to a land that is “cut off.”
Certainly, nothing involving animals can do that. Christ's sacrifice, though, was both necessary and entirely sufficient to deal with sin. He became sin for us (II Corinthians 5:21) and was cut off. He paid the death penalty, giving us access to the Father, as well as bearing the sin into forgetfulness and cleansing the consciences of those who accept Him.
David C. Grabbe
Who Fulfills the Azazel Goat— Satan or Christ? (Part Three)
"Those sacrifices" identifies the body of laws being talked of here - the sacrifices, of which the law is just a shadow. They were not a part of the original covenant, but were added later (see Jeremiah 7:22-23).
Verse 3 tells us why it was considered to be a schoolmaster. God had a good reason for them doing these things: They were to remind people of sin. They did not define sin. They were commanded because people were sinning; He made them give sacrifices to remind them that they were sinning!
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Covenants, Grace, and Law (Part 17)
Perhaps one might think of this as being a rather minor affair, but God shows that He had—and so we must have—respect for the life of an animal. God, in the instructions regarding the regular sacrifices, says not to eat the blood! He says this out of respect for the animal because its life was in its blood. The blood had to be drained on the ground, not imbibed by a human being.
Animals have at least a low level of feeling. They experience fear; situations can frighten them. What animal owner does not think that his pet, his dog or cat, has a special relationship or special feeling for him? Can we extend that out—that a bullock, a goat, a sheep, a kid of the goats, or a lamb might have feelings too? Not human feelings, certainly, but they have life and they symbolize—every single one of them—the life of Jesus Christ. How many animals had to give their lives to make a witness, an example of that? We will never know, but just to help us understand, Josephus records that one year during his lifetime, the Romans took a census of all of the lambs that were killed in Jerusalem, and 256,000 lambs were killed on Passover alone—256,000 lambs on one Passover just to teach a lesson to Israel and to us.
Perhaps it would help us to understand why God told the Israelites in Exodus 12 that keeping Passover was to be a family affair. It was not done at the Temple or the Tabernacle. God commanded that everybody killed his own lamb—every family. He wanted to make the point to all that each person is responsible for the death of the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ!
Consider that Israelite families were not rich. Most of them had small herds and flocks—just a few sheep and lambs. They lived, in most cases, with their animals, and when they put a lamb to death on Passover, it was very likely the family pet! They killed and ate something that was very close to them—something that they had treated like part of the family. This was an object lesson, and God allowed millions of them to occur!
As far as God is concerned, nothing is too great a price to pay for us.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Awesome Cost of Salvation
The sacrifices and offerings, though sincerely and fastidiously performed over centuries, could never accomplish what the offerers looked to them to do. They are symbols, shadows, of events and processes that have a far greater scope than most people ever realize. Though they are no longer necessary - because they were fulfilled primarily in the sacrifice of Christ "once for all" (Hebrews 9:11) - they can still teach us a great deal about this way to which we have committed our lives.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Wavesheaf Offering
Hebrews 10:1 reflects upon the place the Old Testament offerings have in giving understanding of Jesus Christ. The sacrificial laws only portrayed reality; they were enacted to depict something greater to come. What Leviticus 1-5 describes is the shadow of the good things; Christ is the reality.
Why could they not make a person perfect who believed in them and offered them? Why did One so great have to die so that we might live? An illustration from a dollars-and-cents perspective may help us understand. Can something of lesser value, an animal, equal the cost of something of greater value, a man? Is a bull, lamb, goat, or turtledove worth as much as a human being?
What if a person went into a store to purchase - redeem, compensate for, propitiate, expiate - an item costing a hundred dollars, but he offered to pay only fifty dollars? What would the owner say? Would he not say, "You don't have enough here to pay for this, so you cannot have it." So, he leaves and returns with a twenty-dollar bill. The owner says, "That still is not enough." Leaving again, he returns with a ten-dollar bill. It is still not enough. In the analogy, he must repeat this process continually, always attempting to use something of lesser value to receive something of greater value.
Consider, however, what God did. We are the item being purchased, and our redemption price - our cost to Him - is the expiation of our sins. God laid down a multi-trillion dollar note to redeem us: Christ. God gave the life of the Creator to pay the penalty for sin. He did not offer a lesser being for us - an animal is not sufficient to redeem even one human. God came through with a payment that is not merely adequate to meet the cost of one person's redemption, but is so great it satisfies the cost for all the sins of the whole of mankind for all time! God met the total indebtedness of all mankind with one payment.
The last phrase of Hebrews 10:1 says that the animal sacrifices did not make those who followed them perfect. In verse 2, the writer follows this with the question, "For then would they not have ceased to be offered?" He is providing evidence that no animal, no matter how unblemished, can pay the price of a man's sins because a human is worth too much. In verse 3, he proclaims that the sacrifices only reminded the people of how sinful they were and that their sins had yet to be paid for. In verse 4, he concludes that it is just not possible for any animal to pay for the sins of any man.
God simply will not accept the blood of an animal for the life of a man. The sacrificial law was a schoolmaster (Galatians 3:24), intended by God to instruct by putting people through the exercise of making the sacrifice. How much those making the actual offerings learned is unknown, but they are very effective teachers for those of us under the New Covenant, if we incline our minds to them and seek God's help in understanding. Above all, they teach us the value of Christ's sacrifice.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Offerings of Leviticus (Part Six): The Sin Offering
Other Forerunner Commentary entries containing Hebrews 10:3: