What is the Meaning of Hebrews 10:1-4?
By Kelly McDonald, Jr.
“1 For the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect. 2 For then would they not have ceased to be offered? because that the worshippers once purged should have had no more conscience of sins. 3 But in those sacrifices there is a remembrance again made of sins every year. 4 For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins” (Hebrews 10:1-4, KJV)
Common Argument: Some say that these verses declare the entire law of God, including the Ten Commandments, to be a shadow that is no longer relevant or applicable.
Think it Through: Nowhere else in the Bible is the entire law called a shadow. How could the law of God, including the Ten Commandments, be negated in a few sentences from one writer? Honoring only the True God, sexual purity, and many other commandments cannot be shadows because they pertain to the image of God. When God gave the commandments, He told us to ‘be holy as I am holy’ (Lev. 11:44-45; 19:1-3; 20:25-26); He is not a shadow (James 1:17).
Short Answer: The shadow is the law of sacrifice, not the entire law of God. Annual sacrifices of animals were a shadow of Christ’s sacrifice, which was offered once for all.
Longer Answer: A deeper understanding of the Bible will give us a more accurate point of view on these verses.
First of all, it is important that we correctly understand the word LAW. The Greek word translated as LAW is NOMOS. It is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word TORAH. The term LAW in the Bible can be specific OR generic; the context matters!
The word law is a generic word meaning teaching and instruction. Thus, it can refer to anything in the Bible that is instruction. It can also refer to sections of the Bible that contain teaching and instruction for specific people. I have some examples below.
Jesus quoted the Psalms in John 15:25 and called it LAW. “But this cometh to pass, that the word might be fulfilled that is written in their law [NOMOS], ‘They hated me without a cause.’” This quote is found in Psalms 35:19 and 69:4. Paul used the term law when he quoted from the book of Isaiah. “In the law [NOMOS] it is written, With men of other tongues and other lips will I speak unto this people; and yet for all that will they not hear me, saith the Lord” (1 Corinthians 14:21). This is a quote from Isaiah 28:11, 33:19.
The term law can also be specific. In this usage, it refers to instructions given to specific people for a specific application. Many specific laws refer to the Aaronic priesthood and sacrifices. I have listed a few examples below:
Leviticus 6:9 “Command Aaron and his sons, saying, This is the law [TORAH] of the burnt offering: It is the burnt offering, because of the burning upon the altar all night unto the morning, and the fire of the altar shall be burning in it.”
Leviticus 6:14 “And this is the law [TORAH] of the meat offering: the sons of Aaron shall offer it before the LORD, before the altar.”
Leviticus 6:25 “Speak unto Aaron and to his sons, saying, This is law [TORAH]of the sin offering: In the place where the burnt offering is killed shall the sin offering be killed before the LORD: it is most holy.”
Leviticus 7:37 “This is the law [TORAH] of the burnt offering, of the meat offering, and of the sin offering, and of the trespass offering, and of the consecrations, and of the sacrifice of the peace offerings.”
These are just a few of many examples we could use. At the end of Leviticus chapter 7, God closes out the preceding chapters by saying “THIS is the LAW of…” This signifies that He gave specific laws for the priesthood and sacrifices. With this understanding, let us examine the verses in question a second time.
Hebrews 10:1-4 “1 For the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect. 2 For then would they not have ceased to be offered? because that the worshippers once purged should have had no more conscience of sins. 3 But in those sacrifices there is a remembrance again made of sins every year. 4 For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins.”
The context helps us apply the term law in Hebrews. Notice how often sacrifices are referred to in these four verses. Also, bulls and goats are specifically mentioned. The author mentions “…the very image of the things.” The Greek word translated as image is eikon, and it is where we derive the English word icon. In other words, bulls and goats are not in the image of the perfect sacrifice they represented; they are shadows.
Just a few verses later, the writer states: “By the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10). Christ is the image of God; He also came bearing the likeness of mankind (Col. 1:15, Phil. 2:7). He is not a shadow – He is the real thing!
Hebrews 10:1-4 is plainly referring to the specific law of sacrifice.
As you read the New Testament, be aware that some references to LAW are generic and others are specific. It takes a careful study of the Word of God and discernment from God’s Spirit to know the difference. “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).
Kelly McDonald, Jr. – BSA President www.biblesabbath.org
Unless otherwise noted, all verses are the King James Version.