The end of sacrifice: reading Hebrews 10.10-13 with John Howard Yoder


October 2, 2013 by jmar198013

That OT conceptualizations and practices of ritual sacrifice for atonement inform how some NT authors present the cross of Christ is not at issue. John, to a lesser extent Paul, and to a greater extent the author of Hebrews all use images of OT sacrifice to explain what God has wrought through the Cross. At issue is the interpretation of the sacrifices the Hebrew scriptures prescribe and describe. Their significance determines how NT authors appropriated them to explain the significance of the Cross. In popular accounts of the atonement, it is supposed that in some sense these sacrifices were propitiatory in nature. That is, they served to appease God and turn away God’s wrath. By this account, Jesus was the ultimate sacrifice because he was the perfect victim. The other sacrifices, with their unblemished victims (see Num. 29.8), served as a foreshadowing of God’s perfect victim Jesus, who would appease God’s wrath once and for all.

Now this is a theological problem. It affects how we perceive God’s justice. In other words, is God’s justice primarily retributive and judicial, as we see in satisfaction theories of the atonement, particularly in popular expressions of penal substitutionary atonement? Or is God more concerned with reconciliation, redemption, and restoration? Now, putting the matter this way is surely an oversimplification. Yet this contrast, while oversimple, provides a necessary framework for the larger discussion. My sympathies lie more in the direction of a God who works for reconciliation, redemption, and restoration over a God who is limited by an impersonal standard of justice which demands blood before he will even come to the table with us. This is not merely a matter of personal preference, either. For previous explorations in various venues of why I have cast my theological lot as I have, you may review the following posts on this blog:

There are popular voices in the church declaring all who do not buy into penal substitutionary atonement heretics, and failing to handle the biblical and historical evidences for ways of talking about atonement that do not fit the satisfaction narrative. They also fail to acknowledge that their view is a relative newcomer. My purpose in engaging texts and authors who explain things otherwise is not to engage these voices in frontal didactic combat. Rather, my goal is to help promote ongoing reflection and discussion that will serve as a counterpoint to claims that satisfaction models of atonement are the primary or even best models to explain how God loves us through the Cross of his Son.

All that being said, my concern in this post is that some NT authors–chief among them the Hebrews writer–derived their understanding of what happened at the Cross from the OT sacrificial system. This presents readers with two questions: 1) How did sacrifices function in the OT?; and 2) How did the NT writers who used sacrifice imagery understand the function of those sacrifices? A third question could then be appended to the previous two: (3) Were sacrifices seen as an appeasement of God’s wrath, or did they serve some other symbolic function? Of course, I suppose even being able to answer those questions could still leave the matter somewhat unsettled. For instance, the NT authors, in processing what had happened with Jesus, could have transmuted the significance of the sacrificial practices of their ancestors one way or the other.

One of the more interesting passages in the NT for determining how NT authors interpreted the Cross through the hermeneutical lens of OT sacrifices is Hebrews 10.10-13. In this passage, the author picks up a theme that (s)he has woven throughout the letter, that of the priesthood of Christ (cf. Heb. 2.17-18; Heb. 5; Heb. 9). The author makes the claim that the sacrifices of the old covenant could not take away sins, but Christ’s sacrifice does. Hebrews writes:

We have been made holy by God’s will through the offering of Jesus Christ’s body once for all. Every priest stands every day serving and offering the same sacrifices over and over, sacrifices that can never take away sins. But when this priest offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, he sat down at the right side of God. Since then, he’s waiting until his enemies are made into a footstool for his feet. (Heb. 10.10-13 CEB)

The analysis of John Howard Yoder of this text and the concepts that animate it may prove crucial for understanding how Hebrews (and perhaps other NT authors) perceived OT sacrifices and how they applied that perception to the Cross. In order to get Heb. 10.10-13, we need to consider its function in the letter’s broader literary strategy. Yoder notes that:

[T]he first characteristic of the whole book of Hebrews is a proclamation of continuity. God has been working. What God has done in Christ is a part of what God has always been doing . . . The second characteristic is the contrast between the new and the old. Fulfillment is at the same time a novelty. What was promised, once it has come, is different from what had been expected. The new covenant is not just a new edition of the old one; there is something novel in its fulfillment. (Preface to Theology: Christology and Theological Method. Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2002. 115-16)

It is essential to place Hebrews’ contrast of the continuous sacrifices associated with the old covenant with Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice that establishes the new covenant. Christ’s sacrifice is a continuation of what God was already doing. It is also a radically new development. Thus Yoder notes that the Cross:

puts an end to the daily repetition of sacrifice. The last sacrifice is the same as all the others in that it is a sacrifice. It is part of a series. But the series stops here, and that makes a difference, bringing continuity and change at the same time. (Preface to Theology, 116)

That Jesus, in his priestly role, offers a sacrifice is expected. That is a continuation of what God had already put in place. The radically new element introduced is that the priest Jesus offers not an animal as a sacrifice to God, but himself. And that makes all the difference. Thus Yoder continues:

[Jesus] is more than simply a person who carried through certain actions that have to be done because God prescribed them. Jesus is a better priest, and not simply because he is a better victim of immolation. With a traditional view of the atonement in mind, we might think of that as being the obvious thing. Before, the victim was always an animal; now the victim is a man, not only a man, but this unique man of whom the book’s first chapter had said that he is also somehow identical with God. But that is not the point being made in the argument about the suspension of the priesthood in the last half of the book. It is not that he is a better victim because he is a divine victim, but he is a better priest because it is himself he gives. (Preface to Theology, 118-19, emphasis mine)

That last sentence is crucial for understanding why, even though Hebrews takes up the language of priesthood and sacrifice to explain the significance of the Cross, this does not support a satisfaction theory of atonement. There is a subtlety in Hebrews’ argument that many interpreters have missed but Yoder has zeroed in on. Hebrews 10.10-13 is picking up a thread of argument from the previous chapters, where we read that:

We have this kind of high priest. He sat down at the right side of the throne of the majesty in the heavens . . . Every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices. So it’s necessary for this high priest also to have something to offer . . . Jesus has received a superior priestly service just as he arranged a better covenant that is enacted with better promises . . . Christ has appeared as the high priest of the good things that have happened . . . He entered the holy of holies once for all by his own blood, not by the blood of goats or calves, securing our deliverance for all time . . . He offered himself to God through the eternal Spirit as a sacrifice without any flaw . . . He didn’t enter to offer himself over and over again, like the high priest enters the earthly holy place every year with blood that isn’t his . . . Instead, he has now appeared once at the end of the ages to get rid of sin by sacrificing himself. (Heb. 8.1, 3, 6; 9.11a, 12, 14, 25-26 CEB)

When read as part of the overall logic of Hebrews, one cannot escape the conclusion that Yoder has rightly understood Hebrews’ argument. Hebrews isn’t arguing that the Cross becomes a place for the forgiveness of sins because God finally has the perfect victim to appease his sense of justice or honor. Rather, the Cross becomes a vehicle for forgiveness because it opens up a sacred space for God and man to reenter the communion for which humans were made in the first place. And that opening of sacred space between God and humanity, being a conduit, is exactly the function of the priest. John had the same thing in mind when he had Jesus say that he himself would become Jacob’s ladder (John 1.51; cf. Gen. 28.10-15). As Yoder reminds us:

The priest is not a priest in order to sacrifice. Rather, it is because he is a priest that he can sacrifice . . . To be a priest is to be a representative human . . . Christ’s sacrifice in Hebrews 9–and herein he differs from other priests–is himself. The element in Christ that corresponds to the ritual purity of the priest [cf. Heb. 9.1-14]  is his sinlessness . . . The function of the priest is to mediate for others. So to be priests is to be bridges between others and God . . . to be the tool of reconciliation between others and God. (Preface to Theology, 118, 282-84).


The fact is, the taking away of sin is not the only function of the priest. As we saw above, Yoder specified that, “The priest is not a priest in order to sacrifice. Rather, it is because he is a priest that he can sacrifice.” Dealing with sin is one aspect of the priest’s role in mediating between God and humans. One of the hangups with satisfaction or substitutionary models of atonement is that they tend to reduce Christ’s priestly function to dealing with sin. Wile it is obviously true that this a priestly privilege, it is not the priestly purpose. Furthermore, those models of atonement have traditionally had a difficult time connecting the work of Christ (salvation from sin) with the person of Christ (i.e., the particular expression of Jesus’ form of life). What is even more pernicious on a practical level in the lives of believers and the life of the the church is that those accounts of atonement are unable to provide a compelling link between Christ’s priestly offering of himself and the substance of the life of the believer. Think of 1 Peter 2’s declaration that we are a priestly people: You are being made into a holy priesthood to offer up spiritual sacrifices that are acceptable to God through Jesus Christ, the author writes. You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people who are God’s own possession. You have become this people so that you may speak of the wonderful acts of the one who called you out of darkness into his amazing light (1 Pet. 2.5, 9 CEB). Satisfaction theories of atonement say something about why God doesn’t squash us or why we won’t rot in perdition after we die. They may even balm the conscience laden with guilt, though there is danger of diminished spiritual sensitivity when satisfaction models are so employed. These accounts of atonement are not capable of forming us into a holy priesthood that, like Jesus, offers up a sacrifice to God. They are not capable of forming our lives to testify to the wonderful acts of God. Satisfaction models of atonement simply are not designed to carry the freight of discipleship. That is, they cannot provide an adequate account of how Jesus, the high priest who offers himself to God, works to make us into a holy priesthood who likewise offer ourselves to God. What is needed is an account of what God is doing through the Cross that does not reduce the work of Christ to dealing with sin, but rather celebrates the fullness of Christ’s priestly function: “to be the tool of reconciliation between others and God.” That is, to reestablish the communion-obedience with God which humans were created to enjoy. Yoder rightly perceived that Christ’s priestly function of establishing people in a relationship of obedient communion to God is what animates the NT. Citing a wide range of NT passages (e.g. 1 Cor. 6.20; 7.23; Rom. 6.17-22; 8.4; Eph. 2.10; Titus 2.11-14; 1 Pet. 2.2-4; Heb. 9.13-14; Rev. 19.8), Yoder observed that:

Every strand of New Testament literature makes clear that God’s purpose with humanity is to establish obedience in communion, not only to expiate juridical guilt . . . Forgiveness, in the sense of removing an obstacle to communion with God, is evidently part of God’s purpose, but we do not find God preoccupied with our guilt, in the sense of our deserving punishment . . . [T]he concern of God in atonement is our obedience, not our guilt. (Preface to Theology, 301)

Now I want to return shortly to Yoder’s contention that God’s concern in atonement is more with our obedience than our guilt. But before we get there, I want to return to the matter of how OT sacrifices relate to Christ’s Cross; how Hebrews (and probably other NT authors) would have perceived that relation; and what I consider to be the most grievous interpretive error back of satisfaction and substitutionary accounts of atonement. I want to make this observation now not because I’m looking to get in another jab at satisfaction proponents, but because it will get us on the path to a) relating the person and work of Christ; b) relating Christ’s priesthood to the priestly vocation of the church; and c) understanding why it is the case that God’s concern in atonement is our obedience and not our guilt. I would also suggest that these three items find their fullest expression in the letter to the Hebrews. Yoder spoke at length of the problem of how OT sacrifices have been perceived by those who espouse substitutionary models, and how these misconceptions bleed over into how they speak of the Cross:

Hebrews simply assumes, without explanation, that [blood sacrifice] was effective for forgiveness, and goes on to show how Jesus as both priest and sacrifice culminates and terminates the sacrificial system . . . It is often forgotten–especially when the imagery of sacrifice is applied to the doctrine of atonement–that Old Testament sacrifice in general was not connected with the problem of guilt. Most sacrifices dealt with ritual uncleanness or required acts of praise. The “sin-offering” was valid only for unwitting sins, and the “guilt-offering” only for sins where full reparation could be made . . . Forgiveness, in the Old Testament as in the New, is a gift of God’s grace, not something that can be earned by sacrifice. (Preface to Theology 287, 300)


What, then, was the “meaning” of the sacrificial system? How did it “work”? Yoder continues:

Hebrews 9:22 reads, “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” What does the blood mean? Leviticus 17:11 is part of a longer passage explaining why a Jew should not consume the blood of a sacrificial animal, but let it flow onto the altar and into the ground: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it for you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement, by reason of the life.”

It is usually assumed in discussions of the doctrine of atonement that sacrificial language and symbolism are especially compatible with [satisfaction or substitution] theory. [Satisfaction/substitution] theory calls for a death, and in the sacrificial system animals were killed. Yet by concentrating on the meaning of death, we misunderstand the meaning of sacrifice . . . The meaning of the sacrifice is that the livingness or vitality of the animal is put up before God to represent the vitality or livingness of the offering. To give is to be alive to God. The animal did not die in place of the human. It goes to God in place of the human. Precisely the life of the animal, the blood of the animal, goes to God, representing the life of the person who will henceforth live for God. There is only one case in the Old Testament language where the sin is placed on the animal. That is the so-called “scapegoat,” which is not sacrificed. The goat is chased off into the desert as a bearer of human sin. But when the believer comes to the temple with a flawless lamb . . . and lays his or her hand on that sheep, it is not to put guilt on the sheep and have it executed in his or her place. It is to identify with the purity of this gift and then give himself and herself in the purity of this gift as an offering to God. (Preface to Theology, 300-01)

Doesn’t this make a great deal of sense? The two animals represent two different realities. If the point of the slaughtered lamb in this ceremony were actually that it was executed in place of the one offering it, the scapegoat is redundant. And vice versa. Those who insist on reading a substitutionary or satisfaction model of atonement back onto the OT sacrificial system and then applying this understanding to the Cross are committing an anachronism. They end up stripping the ceremony of its compelling logic, and this explains why satisfaction models of atonement cannot sustain a compelling account of discipleship. As Yoder observed:

The concept of discipleship is most clearly taught in those New Testament texts that speak of the Christian’s sufferings (or “cross”) as parallel to Christ’s (Matt. 10.38 [and parallels]; John 15.20; 2 Cor. 1.5 . . . Phil. 1.29 . . . 3.10 . . . Heb. 12.1-4 . . . Rev. 12.11). Under the satisfaction theory these passages make no sense at all. The Christian’s “cross” neither placates an offended holiness nor is the Christian’s suffering a transaction with the Father. Unless the work of Christ has an ethical sense, this whole strand of New Testament thought has no place to fit in. (Preface to Theology, 303)

Yoder’s point about the “ethical sense” of the work of Christ is well-taken, and it fits beautifully with the rhetorical scheme of Hebrews. One of the primary themes of Hebrews is the faithful obedience of Jesus–a faithful obedience which demands suffering and a Cross. So for instance:

  • Jesus . . .  is now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of his death. (Heb. 2.9)
  • Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, he also shared the same things in the same way. He did this to destroy the one who holds the power over death—the devil—by dying. (Heb. 2.14)
  • Jesus was faithful to the one who appointed him just like Moses was faithful in God’s house. (Heb. 3.2)
  • Although he was a Son, he learned obedience from what he suffered. After he had been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for everyone who obeys him. (Heb. 5.8-9)

Yoder rightly pointed out that for Hebrews, there is a deep connection between Christ’s faithful obedience–a faithful obedience that did not yield to suffering and death–and his work of saving us from sin and death. The work of Christ was bound up in obedience. His victory over sin and death is a victory of patient and suffering faithfulness. So Yoder notes:

The real victory of Christ in the language of Hebrews seems to be more at the point of his obedience . . . [referring to Heb. 2.9, 14] Thus death is the victory. Death is not merely the way to victory; it is not the the prerequisite to the victory; it is not the thing that people did to him and to which God reacted . . . Now it is the suffering of death that is itself what he did . . . In suffering, in facing temptation, in being human, he saves us [cf. Heb. 5.8-9] The victory of Christ is therefore not only at the point of resurrection and ascension. It is already part of the quality with which he accepts humiliation, with which he obeys and suffers . . . [I]t is a matter of actually facing temptation and the sufferings of his fate among humanity and continuing to be obedient . . . Christ’s exaltation is the response to his humiliation. It is God’s seal on his faithfulness. (Preface to Theology, 119-20)

And in Hebrews, it is that suffering obedience of Christ in the face of temptation that provides the author the grounds for moral exhortation to an uncertain Christian community. We see this rhetorical strategy employed throughout the letter. For instance, after recounting the faithful obedience of the heroes of Israel in Heb. 11, the author offers that it was this same faithful obedience that animated the life of Jesus and should be found in his disciples. Heb. 12.1-4:

So then let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up, and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter. He endured the cross, ignoring the shame, for the sake of the joy that was laid out in front of him, and sat down at the right side of God’s throne. Think about the one who endured such opposition from sinners so that you won’t be discouraged and you won’t give up. In your struggle against sin, you haven’t resisted yet to the point of shedding blood.

That speaks to my earlier point. Applying a satisfaction or substitutionary account of atonement to Hebrews, with all its references to priesthood and sacrifice, does not provide grounds for this sort of moral exhortation. Hebrews invites believers into a deep solidarity with Jesus, and it is this solidarity that saves–that frees us from sin, and frees us for obedient communion with God. Yoder describes the work of Christ according to Hebrews in terms of the “logic of solidarity”:

In Hebrews, the divine Son deliberately set out to achieve solidarity, and he did so at the cost of suffering obedience. We are identified with him not because we choose to place our trust in him . . . but because he chose to place himself at our mercy. His grace, power, and victory are consummated in his humanness, not despite it. (Preface to Theology, 120)

So why is Jesus the final sacrifice? Yoder explains:

The priest has to purify himself, but Jesus, as the last high priest, gives himself. That is what makes his sacrifice the end of sacrifice. The self that he gave is the self that became like us. Jesus’ uniqueness and conclusiveness as a priest is not that he lives up to the Old Testament doctrine of atonement, not that he makes up what was missing there by somehow being a little more pure, a little more powerful than the Old Testament priest, but rather that he adds to the priestly process the gift of self and his total humanity, his identification with humanity. He is more than an animal symbolically identified with forgiveness; he is really human and therefore really identified with forgiveness. (Preface to Theology, 119).

Now this account of the work of Christ is capable of doing what satisfaction and substitutionary atonement theories are not: it is able to carry the freight of discipleship, to form us into a priestly people who also offer up an acceptable sacrifice to God. Thus as Hebrews nears conclusion of the letter, (s)he can write:

The blood of the animals is carried into the holy of holies by the high priest as an offering for sin, and their bodies are burned outside the camp. And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy with his own blood. So now, let’s go to him outside the camp, bearing his shame . . . [L]et’s continually offer up a sacrifice of praise through him, which is the fruit from our lips that confess his name. Don’t forget to do good and to share what you have because God is pleased with these kinds of sacrifices. (Heb. 13.11-13, 15-16)


2 thoughts on “The end of sacrifice: reading Hebrews 10.10-13 with John Howard Yoder

  1. […] also brings me back, finally, to a cartoon I included in a recent post. I don’t know who did this thing, but here it […]

  2. […] with proclaiming the gospel. I have previously written that this doctrine is problematic because it cannot bear the freight of discipleship. It divorces the person of Christ from the work of Christ, and attempts to separate who we are from […]

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