If you have been following the reading plan I am using, you remember that in the fourth chapter of Leviticus the Lord outlines several forms of sin offering, and the promised result was forgiveness-
- "And the priest shall make atonement for them, and they shall be forgiven" (4:20).
- "So the priest shall make atonement for him for his sin, and he shall be forgiven" (4:26).
- "And the priest shall make atonement for him, and he shall be forgiven."(4:31).
- "And the priest shall make atonement for him for the sin which he has committed, and he shall be forgiven" (4:35).
Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered.
Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit. (Ps. 32:1-2)
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin! (Ps. 51:1-2)
And in the same way, the prophets promised the people they could be forgiven-
"Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool. (Isaiah 1:18)
So was there forgiveness under the old covenant or not? How could God forgive sins in a system that the writer of Hebrews says only used animal sacrifices which cannot take away sins?
If you think about it, this question is an issue for us because of time. How could people who lived in (for example) 1000 BC be forgiven when the only means by which they could be forgiven, the blood of Jesus, was not offered until AD 33? This is a problem for us because we are locked in the flow of time. But for God, who existed before time and is over time, this is not the same problem. We look at the flow of time as those driving on the interstate look through the windshield and see one mile marker after another. God looks at time as those flying in a plane, who look down and see many mile markers at the same time.
The Bible says that God had a plan to redeem the world through Jesus before the beginning of creation. "Knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you" (1 Peter 1:18-20). We are forgiven of our sins because of what Christ has done for us, and those forgiven under the Law were forgiven because of what Christ would do for them. For us His work is past; for them His work was future; for God His work was certain.
Having said this, I do think the writer of Hebrews makes a crucial point in Hebrews 9. While any Israelite under the Law could offer the prescribed sacrifices and be forgiven, their consciences were not really cleansed (Heb. 9:8). That is to say, while objectively a person was forgiven, subjectively they were still plagued in their conscience. Only the willing sacrifice of One who had a conscience could truly cleanse the conscience, which is what Jesus did (Heb. 9:13-14).