“For the law, having a shadow of the good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices, which were offered continually year by year, make those who approach perfect. For then would they not have ceased to be offered, because the worshipers, once purged, would have no more consciousness of sins. But in those sacrifices, there is a remembrance of sins” (Heb. 10:1-2). The Mosaic Law given to the Jews was just a temporary means of communicating God’s requirements. It pointed to a permanent truth that was to come. The Mosaic Law was never given to Israel to give them life but to reveal to them that God is a holy God and cannot give life to the dead until His judgment of death has been met. The thousands of animal sacrifices offered were never intended by God to satisfy His death judgment. They were just a temporary means of bringing to light the fact that a death was necessary.
Under the Mosaic Law, the fires of the brazen altar burned endlessly. The fire made clear that God is holy, and His divine justice must be satisfied. As mentioned earlier if just one sacrifice burned on that altar had truly satisfied forever the requirement of a holy God against man’s sin, then the Jews would have extinguished the flames forever. “For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sin” (Heb. 10:4).
The Jewish priests also worked faithfully and tirelessly, performing one elaborate ceremony after the other, revealing that God is perfectly righteous and that His justice must be satisfied. If just one of those priestly ceremonies satisfied forever the just demands of this holy God, their jobs would have been finished. “And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins” (Heb. 10:11). Day after day, year after year, death was all around the Jew as a graphic grim reminder that the payment for man’s sin is death.
If a sinful man approaches a Holy God, God’s divine judgment of death must first be met. The elaborate Mosaic system never really satisfied God at all but established securely the boundary line that separated a sinful man from a holy God. The fire and smoke continuously made the Jews aware of God’s righteous demand upon their lives. Hidden as a shadow among all of the laws and sacrifices was a silent truth that one day God would send His Lamb who would eternally satisfy God’s divine judgment of death for man’s sin. Israel as a nation, however, did not grasp this silent message. Instead, they grew to enjoy the fire and smell of the smoke. They began to love the beautiful religious ceremonies. In fact, they loved them so much that they unconsciously began to rely upon their performance of these ceremonies to deliver them from God’s judgment. They actually began to worship their worship. They began to rely heavily on the very things that were given by God to reveal to them His righteous demands on their lives and their spiritual need. They failed to see with spiritual eyes the “good things to come” in Hebrews 10:1. I think that this has happened to the church today. Faithfully attending church has become a subtle substitute for a personal walk with Christ.
What about the Gentiles? “For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things contained in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them in the day when God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ, according to my gospel” (Rom. 2:14-16). Some might observe that God’s written requirements given in the Mosaic Law were given to the Jews and not to the Gentiles. This is true, but the lawless Gentiles cannot escape the spiritual intent of the law. “For there is no partiality with God. For as many as have sinned without law will also perish without law, and as many as have sinned in the law will be judged by the law” (Rom. 2:11-12). The spiritual purpose of the law is written in our hearts. According to Romans 7:14, the law is spiritual. It has a spiritual application for everyone. We all have the knowledge that we have been infected with Adam’s sin because God has stamped the imprint of His law in our minds. Our conscience, our secret thoughts, either accuse us of our guilt or excuse us, based on a myriad of rationalistic excuses that we use to condone our sin before God. But either way, everyone is condemned by the law of God. Those who lived before the law was given, and those of us who live today, are all subject to the spiritual work of God’s law. God’s Holy Spirit uses the spirit of God’s law to convict us of our sin (Jn. 16:8) and to point us to salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone. If we do not believe the gospel, God’s law will one day condemn us.