By Michael J. Vlach
Theologians often disagree about the fulfillment of Old Testament (OT) promises concerning national Israel, the temple, Jerusalem, and Israel’s land. Dispensationalists affirm that unconditional promises concerning these matters must be fulfilled literally, and they believe the second coming and kingdom of Jesus will bring these areas to fulfillment. Nondispensationalists often believe these things were shadows and types of greater New Testament (NT) realities involving Jesus and the church (and some would say the new earth). Allegedly, once Jesus and the church arrived no need exists to expect literal fulfillment of issues concerning national Israel, the land, the temple, Jerusalem, etc. The details of these are “fulfilled” or absorbed into Christ.
My purpose here is not to fully discuss this issue of what is a shadow and what is not, but to argue that Hebrews 10:1 is not evidence against the idea of literal fulfillment of OT expectations. Hebrews 10:1 states:
For the Law, since it has only a shadow [skia] of the good things to come and not the very form of things, can never, by the same sacrifices which they offer continually year by year, make perfect those who draw near (emphasis mine).
Some believe Hebrews 10:1 indicates many OT realities are inferior shadows that were transcended by Jesus. For example, I recently listened to a sermon from a theologian on Zechariah 1. He came across verse 16 and the statement, “Therefore thus says the Lord, ‘I will return to Jerusalem with compassion; My house will be built in it,’ declares the Lord of hosts, ‘and a measuring line will be stretched over Jerusalem.”’ This verse and the context of Zechariah chapters 1-6 seem to indicate that the Lord will return to the city of Jerusalem to build a temple and restore the city of Jerusalem. But as this theologian read this verse he then told his audience that they needed to understand the difference between “shadow” and “reality” and then proceeded to have his audience turn to Hebrews 10:1 to show that what Zechariah 1:16 discusses is a “shadow” of what is coming in the NT era.
Thus, this theologian abandoned explaining Zechariah 1 in its own context to appeal to Hebrews 10:1 to give a canonical interpretation of Zechariah 1:16. Allegedly, the prediction of a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem should not be taken literally because the temple was a shadow of Jesus and there is no need for a literal temple in the future—all of this because of Hebrews 10:1.
On other occasions I have read theologians use Hebrews 10:1 as a proof text to show that the OT as a whole is primarily shadows and types, and one should not expect a literal fulfillment of matters concerning Israel, Israel’s land, the temple, and Jerusalem. The canonical reading of Hebrews 10:1 supposedly overrides the literal meaning of Old Testament passages in their original context.
But I submit that Hebrews 10:1 does not imply that the OT as a whole is composed of shadows that give way to greater New Testament realities. Why?
The context of Hebrews 10:1 (and Hebrews 8-10 as a whole) is the relationship of the Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant. Specifically, the priesthood and sacrifice of Jesus and His New Covenant are better than that of the Mosaic Covenant. That’s the main point! The writer of Hebrews is not claiming that everything in the OT is an inferior shadow. Nor is he saying that all things in the OT are inferior shadows. What is a shadow is the Mosaic Law and its sacrifices.
The Mosaic Covenant with its law was a temporary and conditional covenant that Israel broke. Jeremiah 31:31-34 predicted that the Mosaic Covenant would one day give way to the superior New Covenant where God enables His people to obey Him. This is reaffirmed in Hebrews 8:8-13 where the New Covenant is said to make the Mosaic Covenant “obsolete” and “ready to disappear” (Heb. 8:13). So even the OT predicted that the Mosaic Covenant would be replaced by the New Covenant.
The pressing question is this: How can a statement that the Mosaic Law is a shadow of the New Covenant be taken to mean that all matters concerning Israel, Israel’s land, the temple, Jerusalem, etc. are shadows that should not be taken literally?
The short answer is that it does not. Some are inferring things from Hebrews 10:1 that the writer of Hebrews was not intending.
The realities of Israel, the land, temple, Jerusalem, etc., transcend the Mosaic Covenant and are included in promises related to the Abrahamic Covenant, Davidic Covenant, and New Covenant—the covenants of promise.
For instance, Israel and Israel’s land are addressed in the Abrahamic Covenant which predates the Mosaic Covenant by several centuries (Gen. 12, 15, 22). Israel, the land, the temple, and Jerusalem are all addressed in the Davidic Covenant passage of 2 Samuel 7. The temple and Jerusalem are addressed in New Covenant passages. For example, Zechariah 6:9-15 says the coming Messiah will build a temple in Jerusalem. Ezekiel 36–40 links a coming temple in Jerusalem with New Covenant realities. Thus, a statement that the Mosaic Law is a “shadow” cannot be taken to mean that matters related to the covenants of promise are also inferior shadows. These matters transcend the temporary Mosaic Law.
In sum, a statement of the shadow nature of the Mosaic Law in Hebrews 10:1 should not be taken to mean most everything in the OT is a shadow. This approach sweeps too much under the rug of “shadow.”