Commentary on Hebrews 10:4
Of the impotency of external rites about spiritual matters.
For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sin. (Hebrews 10:4)
This verse may be taken as a distinct argument to confirm the impotency of the legal sacrifices, because they consisted of the blood of brute beasts, which could not expiate sin. Or it may have immediate reference to the third verse, as shewing a reason why in those sacrifices there was a remembrance again of sin: namely, because those sacrifices were of brute beasts, which could not take away sin: so as sin remained notwithstanding those sacrifices: and therefore there was a remembrance again of them.
Both references tend to the same purpose, and may both be comprised under this causal conjunction γάρ, “for.” The word άδύνατον translated, “not possible,” is the very same that is translated “impossible” in Heb. 6.18. Of the derivation and divers acceptations of the Greek word, see chap. 6, § 38.
Here it is taken for an impossibility, in regard of an impotency in the nature of the thing it self. There is such an impotency in the blood of beasts, as it is impossible that sin should be taken away thereby.
By “blood” he meaneth that which was shed when the beasts were offered up for sacrifices, whereby was typified, the blood and death of the Lord Jesus.
Under these two creatures, “bulls and goats,” all other clean creatures that were offered up for sacrifices, are synecdochally comprised; for they were all of the same kind. These two are here mentioned in reference to the solemn annual sacrifice that was offered up for sin, on the day of reconciliation (Lev. 16.11-15). These were called “sin offerings,” because they were types of Christ’s sacrifice, which did indeed take away sin, but they themselves could not, and that by reason of the disproportion betwixt the means of cleansing on the one side, and the thing cleansed, together with the filth cleansed away on the other side. The means were merely external, earthly and carnal, namely, the blood of beasts. The thing to be cleansed, was the soul of man, which is a spiritual substance.
The filth to be taken away was sin, which is a spiritual pollution. It is in a manner of an infinite kind, because it is committed against an infinite majesty. By it God’s wrath, which is infinite, is provoked. Now what is there in the blood of beasts, to pacify such wrath, to wash away such pollution as sin, and to purge such a spiritual substance as the conscience, spirit, and soul of man is? It is not possible that so great a work should be wrought by so mean a means.
External and carnal things cannot work internal and spiritual effects. See more hereof in Heb. 9:9. [The Tabernacle “was a figure for the time then present, in which were offered both gifts and sacrifices, that could not make him that did the service perfect, as pertaining to the conscience; which stood only in meats and drinks, and divers washings, and carnal ordinances, imposed on them until the time of reformation.” (Heb. 9:9-10).] Had not Christ’s human nature been united to his divine nature, it could not have merited, and done so great works as it did. It is in reference hereunto that Christ saith, “The flesh profiteth nothing” (John 6.63). On this ground it is said that “Christ through the eternal spirit,” that is, his divine nature, “offered himself,” etc. (Heb. 9:14).
We may from hence infer that the opinion of our adversaries concerning the Sacraments, conferring grace by the very work done, is erroneous and pernicious. What is water in baptism? What is bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper, simply considered in themselves, more than the meats and drinks, and washings under the Law; yea, than the blood of bulls and goats here mentioned? What are ministers of the Gospel, in regard of their persons, and mold and outward condition, more than Priests and Levites under the Law? The first preacher of the Gospel, who was Christ’s forerunner, acknowledged that he was not worthy to bear Christ’s shoes, and that he baptized with water (Mat. 3.11), all that he could do, was to use the outward element. Other ministers are no more worthy than he, nor can do any more than he did. When Paul and Barnabas were by the Heathen accounted gods, they acknowledged themselves to be men of like passions with others (Acts 14.15). Though Apostles were planters, and Evangelists waterers, yet, “neither is he that planteth anything, neither he that watereth, but God that giveth the increase” (1 Cor. 3.7).
Indeed it is true that in regard of the office that John the Baptist had, to be the forerunner of Christ, and plainly to declare him, saying, “Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1.29), there rose not a greater than he before his time (Mat. 11.11). And in some circumstances it may be granted that the sacraments of the New Testament have an excellency above all the rites of the Old Testament; for they are not so many in number, so cumbersome, so burdensome, so painful, so gross, so dark; but fewer in number, more easy in performance, more perspicuous and clear for understanding; they are memorials for things past, not types of things to come. Yet in the main substance, their ministers and their sacraments were as ours. Unto them was the Gospel preached (Heb. 4.2). “They did eat the same spiritual meat, and drink the same spiritual drink,” namely, that we Christians do; for “they drank of that spiritual Rock which was Christ” (1 Cor. 10.3-4). There is no more supernatural virtue in our sacramental elements than was in theirs. It is as impossible for water to cleanse the soul, as for the blood of beasts to take away sins.
If this be true of ordinances instituted by Christ, how much more impossible is it that human inventions should purge the soul, or take away sin.
Learn we hereby in the use of all external ordinances, to raise up the eyes of our soul, above the external visible thing—even unto Christ himself, and to the things which he hath done and endured for the saving of our souls.