And almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission” (Heb 9:22). What is the meaning of this expression, “almost all things,” at the beginning of the verse? This text reveals that under the Law there were exceptions touching the forgiveness of sins. However, this does not permit us to say: “If I am sincere then God will not require anything else.” For in considering the exceptions, we discover a certain severity which was not less than that in those requirements where blood had to be shed.
Here are the four exceptions in the Old Testament where sins were purged without the shedding of blood:
“But if he be not able to bring two turtledoves, or two young pigeons, then he that sinned shall bring for his offering the tenth part of an ephah of fine flour for a sin offering; he shall put no oil upon it, neither shall he put any frankincense thereon, for it is a sin offering” (Lev 5:11).
“And Moses said unto Aaron, ‘Take a censer, and put fire therein from off the altar, and put on incense, and go quickly unto the congregation, and make an atonement for them’” (Num 16:46).
“And a man that is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer, and lay them up without the camp in a clean place, and it shall be kept for the congregation of the children of Israel for a water of separation: it is a purification for sin” (Num 19:9).
“Then flew one of the seraphim unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar; and he laid it upon my mouth, and said, ‘Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged’” (Isa 6:6-7).
In each of the four cases quoted, fire is associated with forgiveness. We know that in the Old Testament, fire is frequently mentioned to imply the judgment of God upon sin as in the case of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19). There were, of course, other instances of cleansing, such as Leviticus 22:6 and Numbers 31:22-24, but these involved cleansing from physical defilement and not from sin.
In Leviticus 5, the fine flour, representing the sin offering, is burnt upon the altar. The sinner was too poor to bring two birds but, in grace, God accepted this sin offering of fine flour. We notice that fine flour is one of the essential ingredients of the meat offering of Leviticus 2, speaking typically of the person of Christ. In this passage, three elements are present: a sacrifice, an altar, and fire.
In the second case, the fire which burnt in the censer had been taken off the altar when Aaron made atonement for the sin of the people at the occasion of Korah’s revolt. Aaron’s role was of crucial importance to deliver the people from the weight of the wrath of God: “He stood between the dead and the living.” The fire in the censer halted the progress of the plague, the judgment of God upon the sin of the people. The censer was normally used to burn the sweet smelling perfume which rose up to heaven. Thus, the smell of this sacrifice rose up to heaven to teach that this sacrifice was accepted by God to atone for the sin of the people.
The third passage in Numbers 19 speaks of the red heifer that had been offered on the altar and all that was left was the ashes to be used for “a purification for sin” (v9). Hebrews 9:13-14 points out that these ashes could only purify the flesh and paled in comparison with the blood of Christ.
Finally, in the fourth case mentioned, that of the prophet Isaiah, we see how his sin was purged by the live coal taken off the altar. Isaiah had not committed any specific sin but having seen the glory of God, he was intensely conscious of his sinful state, not because of anything that he had done but because of what he was. Under the Law, it was impossible for a sinner to see God and live. Thus the seraphim intervened, bringing this live coal from the altar, laying it on the prophet’s mouth and declaring: “Thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged.”
According to Hebrews 9:22, these exceptions were allowed under the Law. But with the death of the Lord Jesus Christ, the New Testament establishes the fact that the only means of obtaining the remission of sins is by the shedding of the blood as is stated in this same verse and there is now no exception.
The importance of the shedding of the blood of Christ is underlined in several texts. We have been justified by His blood (Rom 5:9), and we have redemption through His blood (Eph 1:7). Peter reminds that we have been redeemed with the precious blood of Christ (1Peter 1:18-19). In 1 John and in the book of Revelation we read that we have been cleansed and washed from our sins by the blood of Christ (1John 1:7 and Rev 1:5). We have seen in Hebrews 9:14 that this same blood purges our consciences from dead works to serve the living God.