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A Body You Have Prepared

He took a body to give his body.


At Christmas we remember that Jesus came among us. The Second Person of the Trinity lowered himself, condescended, and became a man. That’s what our passage says: “A body you have prepared for me.” He was born of a virgin, laid to rest in a manger, announced by angels, and honored by shepherds. Charles Wesley put it this way:

Veiled in flesh, the godhead see;

Hail to the incarnate deity!

Pleased as man, with men to dwell—

Jesus, our Immanuel.

At Christmas, we remember that the eternal Son of God, took a body. Why did he do that? He took a body in order to give his body as a sacrifice for our sins.

The passage has an interesting way of discussing this theology. It uses a metaphor—the image of a shadow (Hebrews 10:1). The old system of sacrificing animals as offerings for our sin was just a shadow. It was not the reality. The death of Jesus is the reality. The shadow—sacrificing bulls, goats, sheep, and lambs—resembles the reality; but it has no substance.

[Using the visual aid of a shadow.] Can you tell what the object is? [Reveal the object] The shadow has a similar shape as the object, but you cannot grasp a shadow. It teaches us some things about the actual object, but it is not the object.

Shadow: The Sacrifices of the OT Simply Reminded People of Their Sins. (10:1, 3-4)

On the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, the Jewish community offered an animal. Blood was shed. Maybe the community felt good after that—“Yes! Our sins are covered! We have peace with God!” But no! Other sacrifices had to be made throughout the year: a dove, a goat, a sheep, a lamb. So many offerings, so much blood.

And then next year, the Day of Atonement again—another sacrifice and more blood. Then next year; then next year; then next year. It never stopped. So, when Jewish worshipers saw an animal being sacrificed, it simply reminded them of their sin. Season after season, festival after festival, year after year, sacrifice after sacrifice.

Sometimes at work someone may place a jar in the breakroom. Every time someone says something bad, they put a coin in the jar. Someone says a swear word: clink. Someone complains: clink. Someone gossips: clink. The jar fills up, clink; every day we see the jar, clink; and we remember that we have little control over our tongues. Putting coins in the jar doesn’t solve the problem, does it? It doesn’t purify our tongues and take away our wrongdoing. The jar simply reminds us of our bad habits.

That’s what animal sacrifice did—it reminded people that they were sinners. It didn’t solve the problem of sin.

Religious Rules and Ceremonies can’t Take Away Sin.

Today we don’t offer animals, but we still try to save ourselves.

The secular version of this can be seen in the Humanist Manifesto, II: “No deity will save us, we must save ourselves.” When the secular version talks about “salvation,” it does not mean forgiveness of sins, heaven and hell, or new life with God. Instead, it means human progress, salvation here and now, making earth a paradise—justice and ridding the world of disease. No deity will do that! But with science, technology, and education we can save ourselves.

The religious version can be seen in things like the Five Pillars (or rules) of Islam: prayer, fasting, giving alms, saying the creed, and pilgrimage to Mecca. Or it can be seen in the Eight-Fold Path of Buddhism: right view, right intention, right speech, right livelihood, right concentration, right action, right effort, right mindfulness.

Religion says that if we do these things, then we achieve enlightenment, or then God will be merciful. Religion sounds like The Little Train That Could—“I think I can, I think I can!” With enough effort and the right set of techniques, maybe God will be merciful, but we have to get our ducks lined up in a perfect row.

Unfortunately, sometimes Christians preach a similar message: obey, sacrifice, follow the rules, be good, then God will save you. That version of Christianity would never assert bluntly that we must save ourselves, but in practice, it comes close to saying: “God will forgive your sins if you earn it.”

Religion is spelled “D O.” Do more, do better, do good works, to earn your salvation. But religion is just a shadow. It might look like life with God, it might look like peace with God, but it is a shadow. No matter how religious we are, we cannot save ourselves.

When the Marquam Bridge was built in Portland, OR in the 1960s it was an engineering marvel—a double decker bridge, many feet above the Willamette River. It was originally designed to connect it to an east-west freeway called the Mt. Hood Freeway. However, the taxpayers of Oregon voted for a light rail system rather than another freeway, and the Mt. Hood Freeway was never built. But the exit is still there.

Today if you drive on the bridge, you won’t even notice the exit because it is blocked. But let’s say that you are on the top level of the bridge and you see Mt. Hood in the distance, shining like a gem, with its perfect pyramid shape.

Let’s say that you want to go to Mt. Hood. With all your heart, you desire to see that fair land. So, you decide to take the exit. You rev your engine, build up speed, burst through the barriers, and sail toward the beckoning mountain. How far will you go? Some of us will fly further than others, those with large moral engines, but no one is going to fly sixty miles to Mt. Hood. You can’t get there by your own power.

The doctrine of good works says rev your engine, build up speed, try hard, be determined, right speech, right motivations, prayer, alms, do more, do better . . . but all of those good things cannot carry us home.

But the Bible tells us about something that can carry us home. That is, the Bible tells us about someone who can carry us home. His name is Jesus. He is not a shadow.

Substance: A Body Was Prepared for Him so that He Could Become an Offering for Our Sins. (10:5)

The religious sacrifices of the Old Testament were pointing to Jesus. That is what we remember at Christmas: he took a body and offered that body for our sins. Born of a virgin. Born in a stable. Laid to rest on Mary’s lap.

The baby became a boy. He grew up among his people. He became a man. He went about doing good. He came to his own, but his own did not receive him. They called him crazy and demon-possessed.

Then he died a terrible death. Why? To become an offering for our sins. He lived the life we should have lived, and died the death we should have died. On the cross he became sin for us. As Charles Spurgeon said: “With one great draught he drained damnation dry.”

The Bible describes this great spiritual transaction with images like these: he heals our sickness, cancels our debt, adopts strangers, replaces shame with honor, and ends the war and makes peace. As Hebrews 10:10, says, we have been “sanctified through the body of Jesus once for all.” That means we are “set apart for God.” He saves us and gives us eternal life.


The death of Jesus did what the religions of the world could not do. This the good news of the gospel—Jesus came to save us from our sins. He took a body to give his body.

Good works says: “Save yourself.”

Gospel says: “We can’t save ourselves, so God prepared a body for him. He became an offering for our sins.”

Good works says: “Do more, do better, try harder, earn your salvation.”

Gospel says: “Someone else earned it for you.”

Good works says: “God helps those who help themselves.”

Gospel says: “God helps those who cannot help themselves.”

Good works says: “If I live like this, I’ll be saved.”

Gospel says: “I am saved, so I’ll live like this.”

Good works is spelled “D O.”

Gospel is spelled “D O N E.”

If you would like to accept this good news of the gospel, you might pray this prayer:

Dear Lord, I have had faith in myself—my own good deeds—to earn eternal life; but your Word says that all of my good deeds cannot take away sin. But your Word also says that Jesus can. He took my sin when he died on the cross. I trust him. Amen.

Jeffrey Arthur is professor of preaching and communication at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

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