Jesus’ “Once for All” Sacrifice

Q: How are we to respond when non-Catholics object to the sacrifice of the Mass on the grounds that Hebews says Christ was sacrificed “once for all”?

A: By pointing out five things:

First, it is not non-Catholics who make this objection, it is Protestants. All other Christians, whether they are Eastern Orthodox, Armenian, Assyrian, Coptic, Abyssinian, or what have you, honor the idea that the Mass is a sacrifice. Protestants are out on a limb here in their interpretation of Hebrews. In fact, the sacrifice of the Mass was well understood and universally at the time the book of Hebrews was canonized in the fourth century.

Second, the early Church Fathers and other early Christian documents, including some within the first century (!) describe the Mass as a sacrifice.

Third, the New Testament indicates that the Mass is a sacrifice.

Fourth, it is absolutely true that Christ offered his sacrifice once for all — in the sense that Hebrews is using the term “sacrifice” and “offering” in those passages. You see, you can’t just rush in and impose any meaning you want on words. One must examine the text to see how the terms are being in Scripture, and when one examines Hebrews 9:25-26, as the author is discussing the uniqueness of Christ’s sacrifice, he indicates quite clearly the way in which he is conceiving of sacrifice in these passages. He writes:

“Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the Holy Place yearly with blood not his own; for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Heb. 9:25-26).

The italicized phrase — “for then he would have had to suffer” — indicates what kind of sacrifice is being talked about here.

In the Bible, there are many different kinds of sacrifice. One category is the bloody sacrifice, in which the victim is slain. This is by no means the only kind of sacrifice, however. There are numerous unbloody ones, perhaps best typified in Paul’s command to us to offer ourselves as “living sacrifices” to God (Rom. 12:1).

The author of Hebrews’s statement that if Christ had come to offer himself repeatedly he would have had to repeatedly suffer indicates that here he is using the word “offer” in its bloody sense–the performance of a bloody sacrifice in which the victim is slain and, consequently (since victims were not anesthetized) suffers.

Thus when he uses the terms “sacrifice” and “offering” in these passages, he is using them to refer to bloody rather than unbloody sacrifices. This means that, since some want to generate controversy about these passages, we need to mentally splice in the term “bloody” in order to keep track of what kind he is talking about.

The resulting readings go like this:

  • He has no need, like those high priests, to offer [bloody] sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people; he did this once for all when he offered up himself [in a bloody manner on the cross]. (7:27)
  • Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly [in a bloody manner], as the high priest enters the Holy Place yearly with blood not his own; for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the [bloody] sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered [in a bloody manner] once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him. For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same [bloody] sacrifices which are continually offered year after year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they [the bloody sacrifices] not have ceased to be offered? If the worshipers had once been cleansed, they would no longer have any consciousness of sin [which blood atonement had not beem made]. But in these [bloody] sacrifices there is a reminder of sin year after year. For it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins. (9:25-10:4)
  • [T]hen he added, “Lo, I have come to do thy will.” He abolishes the first [covenant] in order to establish the second. And by that will we have been sanctified through the [bloody] offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. (10:9-10)

When one inserts the word “bloody” as a mental place-holder to keep the kind of sacrifice being talked about in the “once for all” passages straight, the objection to the sacrifice of the Mass evaporates, because, of course, the Mass is not a bloody sacrifice, as the official documents of the Church has explicitly noted for centuries (Trent makes this point very forcefully, for example).

There is thus nothing at all preventing Christ, in an unbloody manner, from continually offering himself to God in an unbloody manner — as a living sacrifice, as his spiritual service (Rom. 12:1), appealing to God on our behalf (Heb. 7:25, 9:24), in his unbloody, glorified flesh (cf. Paul VI, Credo of the People of God).

Fifth, and finally, one should point out that the book of Hebrews also uses the term “sacrifice” in a unbloody manner and indicates that Christ is sacrificed multiple times in that sense.

“Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ has entered, not into a sanctuary made with hands, a copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf” (Heb. 9:22-24).

Note the plural there: The things of the heavenly temple are purified with better sacrifices than those offered in the earthly sanctuary. But today the only ultimate sacrifice for sin is the sacrifice of Christ, and so it is by the multiple offerings (re-presentations) of Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross that cleanse the heavenly temple.

The metaphor in this text is the idea of our sins coming before God in his heavenly temple and offending his presence–metaphorically, defiling the heavenly temple. This is then taken away by the heavenly high priest, Jesus, by the unbloody offering of himself to the Father, appealing on our behalf based on his bloody offering of himself on the cross.

The fact of the ongoing nature of the heavenly sacrifices is admitted by the Protestant commentator George W. Buchanan. In his commentary on Hebrews, he writes:

d. Sacrifices in heaven.—Since the heavenly archetype functions just as its earthly imitation, it seemed reasonable for the heavenly high priest to offer sacrifices in heaven (Heb 8:3-4). These sacrifices, of course, must be better than their earthly counterparts, but their function is to cleanse “the heavenly things” (Heb 9:23). [Protestant] Scholars have had trouble with these passages, because Christ’s “once for all” sacrifice on earth was thought to make all other sacrifices unnecessary. It also seems a little surprising to think of heaven as a place where there would be sin and defilement that needed cleansing. The author of Hebrews found no difficulty with this, however. For him, heaven and the holy of holies were very close together. God’s presence and his angels were in both. From the holy of holies the smoke carried the incense from the sacrifices directly to heaven, where there were also a holy of holies, sacrifices, and angels. When Jesus, as the heavenly high priest, passed through the curtain into the holy of holies, which was like heaven, he not only offered a sacrifice, but he was himself the sacrifice (Heb 9:12). Just as other sacrifices were taken to heaven through the pillar of fire and smoke, and just as the man of God went up through the column of smoke to heaven before the eyes of Manoah and his wife (Judg 13:20), so also Jesus was the sacrifice that “went through the heavens” (Heb 4:14) with the column of smoke in the holy of holiest Such imagery is consistent with the Near Eastern concept of the relationship of heaven to earth, columns of smoke and fire, temples and high places, heavenly archetypes and earthly counterparts, and the specially holy places that link heaven to earth.

A better understanding of the Near Easterner’s concept of heaven in relationship to the temple is important for understanding the imagery related to the temple, the priesthood, and heaven, particularly in Hebrews and the Book of Revelation. (To the Hebrews, 162).

The book of Hebrews also refers to the Eucharistic sacrifice when it says:

“We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat” (Heb. 13:10).

Those priests serving in the Jewish temple, of course, having no right to eat the Christian Eucharist.

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