Sins Taken Away
As is well known, Hebrews is a book of contrasts. We find one of these in chapter 10. In verse 3 (referring to the sacrifices offered year by year under the old covenant) the writer says: “But in these [there is] a calling to mind of sins yearly” (my emphasis). In verse 17 however, (now speaking of the new covenant) God declares “their sins and their lawlessnesses I will never remember any more” (my emphasis). You will see the contrast at once. Under Moses, sins were brought before the mind of the offerer. Under Christ, sins are removed from before the mind of God.
It would be easy to go a little further, and talk of this as a contrast between Judaism and Christianity, but that is far from the truth. While, as Christians, we can apply verse 17 to ourselves, strictly speaking, it is addressed to Israel. The contrast is not between Israel and the Church, but Israel under the old covenant and Israel under the new covenant. When God says “their sins and their lawlessnesses I will never remember any more”, He speaks in the context of the new covenant He will establish with Israel in a time yet future: “This [is] the covenant which I will establish towards them after those days, saith [the] Lord: Giving my laws into their hearts, I will write them also in their understandings …” (v16). Both this verse and verse 17 are quoted from the prophet Jeremiah (see Jer. 31: 33, 34) who could not be clearer in identifying the new covenant with “the house of Israel and with the house of Judah” (v31). That Paul refers to himself and Timothy as “ministers of [the] new covenant” (2 Cor. 3: 6) is very true, for Christianity takes its character from the new covenant, but this does not alter the fact that its primary application is to Israel.
Jeremiah 31: 33, 34 is also quoted in Hebrews 8: 10–13, and again, Israel, the new covenant and sins being never remembered any more are all brought together. The latter is clearly an allusion to what is taught in Leviticus 16. There Aaron was to slaughter two sin–offerings as part of the atonement for sin: a bullock for himself and his house (see v6) and a goat “which is for the people” (v15). Only when he had “ended making atonement for the sanctuary, and the tent of meeting, and the altar” did he lay his hands on a second, living goat, “confess over it all the iniquities of the children of Israel”, and then “send away the goat into the wilderness” (vs 20–22). As a land apart from men, the wilderness was truly a “land of forgetfulness” (Ps. 88: 12)—Israel’s sins were gone, taken away, never to be remembered anymore.
Now this type is not exactly for us. As Christians, we are not waiting outside the tabernacle for the high priest to come out and send our sins away. Unlike Israel, we can go in: “Having therefore, brethren, boldness for entering into the [holy of] holies by the blood of Jesus, the new and living way which he has dedicated for us through the veil” (Heb. 10: 19, 20). Thus what is set forth in the goat sent away into the wilderness is primarily for Israel. At the present moment, God has given Israel a “spirit of slumber” (Rom. 11: 8) and they are shut up in unbelief. Days are coming, however, when the dry bones of the nation will be made alive (see Ezek. 37) and “They shall call on my name, and I will answer them: I will say, It is my people; and they shall say, Jehovah is my God” (Zech. 13: 9). Then, Matthew 24 tells us, “shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven; and then shall all the tribes of the land lament, and they shall see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (v30). This, in type, is the high priest coming out of the sanctuary. Hebrews 9: 28 will then apply: “thus the Christ also, having been once offered to bear the sins of many, shall appear to those that look for him the second time without sin for salvation” (Heb. 9: 28; compare also Luke 21: 28: “lift up your heads, because your redemption draws nigh”.) Christ has already been once offered for sin, but not until He comes again will the nation come into the gain of His sacrifice for them (see John 11: 51). God will then make a new covenant with them, a “covenant from me to them, when I shall have taken away their sins” (Rom. 11: 27, my emphasis). Only when Israel has looked “on me whom they pierced” (Zech. 12: 10) will the type of the goat sent away be fulfilled, and Hebrews 10: 17 receive its proper application: “and their sins and their lawlessnesses I will never remember any more”. The old covenant centred around sacrifices that “can never take away sins” (v11). As Christians, we know now what Israel will know in the future, namely the truth of what God says about Himself: “I, I [am] He that blotteth out thy transgressions for mine own sake, and I will not remember thy sins” (Is. 43: 25, my emphasis).