Were Sins of Those Under the Old Covenant “ rolled forward ”?
I have heard it said all my Christian life that the sins of Israel were ” rolled forward ” to Christ. But I read in Leviticus 4, 5, and 16 that a person bringing a sin offering will be forgiven (Lev.4:20, 26, 31, 35; 5:10, 16, 18; 16:30). Where in the Bible do we read that the sins of Israel were “rolled forward” when Leviticus says their sins were forgiven?
But were their sins actually forgiven at the time that they offered their animal sacrifice? I think that this is the question that we need to think about in relationship to the sacrifices that were offered under the Old Covenant. The book of Hebrews weighs in heavily in answering this question.
In Hebrews 10:1, the writer of that book as inspired of the Holy Spirit makes the case that the sins under the Old Covenant were not actually forgiven. The first point he makes in this regard is that those who offered sacrifices under the Old Law were not made perfect/complete. If they were, then they would have ceased to offer the sacrifices and they would have no more consciousness of sins. That is, they would not have to continually be reminded of their sins with their sacrifices. He then says that with every year those sacrifices brought to their consciousness a remembrance of sins. That is, every year, they were reminded of their sins. Why is that? They were reminded of their sins every year because the blood of bulls and goats could never take away sins.
Well, what can take away sins, then? Certainly not the sacrifices and offerings that were made under the Old Covenant. Those could never take them away. But some other sacrifice could. That is why Jesus took on a body and came to the world. To be able to offer a sacrifice to God that would take away sins. He shed his blood for the New Covenant under which God promises to take away sins and remember them no more. Hebrews 10:18 is really key to understanding this. The King James Version says, “Now where remission of these is, there is no more offering for sin.” Notice also some of the other modern versions. NIV, “And where these have been forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin.” NASB, “Now where there is forgiveness of these things, there is no longer any offering for sin.” The Message (MSG), “Once sins are taken care of for good, there’s no longer any need to offer sacrifices for them.” Amplified Bible (AMP), “Now where there is absolute remission (forgiveness and cancellation of the penalty) of these [sins and lawbreaking], there is no longer any offering made to atone for sin.” New Living Translation (NLT), “Now when sins have been forgiven, there is no need to offer any more sacrifices.” ESV, “Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.” Contemporary English Version (CEV), “When sins are forgiven, there is no more need to offer sacrifices.” NJKV, “Now where there is remission of these, there is no longer an offering for sin.” Worldwide English (New Testament) (WE), “When these wrong things have been forgiven, a sacrifice is not needed for them again.” Young’s Literal Translation (YLT), “and where forgiveness of these [is], there is no more offering for sin.” Under the Old Covenant there were still sacrifices made for sins. So it should be evident from Hebrews 11:18 that those sins were not forgiven.
So what do we do with the passages in Leviticus that say they would be forgiven? First, let us recognize that when dealing with the Old Covenant, we have to understand it through the New. In 2 Corinthians 3, Paul compares and contrasts these two covenants. In verse six (6) he speaks of being a minister of the New Covenant. This New Covenant is not of the letter, but of the Spirit. In comparing this New Covenant with the Old, he states that the Old had some glory. But that it was a glory that was going to end. He asks, “If the Old Covenant, which is ending, had some glory, will not the New Covenant have a greater glory?” In fact, he says in verse 10 that what once had glory (the Old Covenant), now has no glory at all. Why is that? It is because of the glory that surpasses it in the New Covenant. He illustrates this point further by discussing the veil that was over Moses face when he came down from receiving the Old Law in Mt. Sinai. The veil in this context represents the hiding of the glory of the Old Law. What was the ultimate glory of the Old Law? It was Christ. Galatians 3:24 states that the Law was our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ. And in Romans 10:4 we read that Christ is the end of the law to everyone that believes. Coming back to 2 Corinthians 3 we see that once Christ has been revealed through the New Covenant as the glory of the Law, then the New Covenant becomes the lasting glory, not the Old. Can one then understand the purpose of the Old Covenant without the New? Paul says that is not possible. This veil that represents the hiding of the ultimate purpose of the Old Covenant can only be taken away in Christ. That means that one cannot understand the purpose of the Old Covenant without Christ. That is why Paul talks about those whose minds are hardened when they read the Old Covenant. The veil is not lifted for them; that is, they don’t understand what it was really about. But, says verse 16, when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed and they can understand what the Old Covenant was about. Thus the whole point that Paul is getting across to us is that we can’t fully understand what was really going on under the Old Covenant, without it being filtered and interpreted through the New Covenant. The Old Covenant contained the types, shadows, and figures. The New Covenant contains what is real and abiding.
Having that in mind, how ought we to view those passages in the Old Covenant that say that God would forgive their sins in offering up those sacrifices of bulls and goats? Well, if we interpret it through the New Covenant and what is revealed to us in the book of Hebrews, then it seems that God did not actually forgive their sins. What does it mean, then, that God would forgive their sins? If we recognize Christ as the one and only sacrifice to forgive sin for all times, then the offering of sacrifice under that Old Law represented potential forgiveness. That is, they would be potentially forgiven of their sins until Christ came and shed his blood on the cross. Then they could have actual forgiveness. All of the sacrifices that they made in obedience to God were part of fulfilling the obligations that they had under their covenant to be in a right relationship with God. Jesus died for those under Old Covenant as well as those who would be under the New (Hebrews 9:15). The difference between them and us is that they looked potentially to the sacrifice of Christ and we look back at the actual sacrifice itself.
What does God do with the sins of the people under the Old Law until Jesus comes to die for their forgiveness? God remembers those sins. God can’t actually forgive those sins because the blood of bulls and goats cannot take away sins and since they continued to offer sacrifices for those sins, they were not forgiven according to Hebrews 10:18. So God remembered their sins year after year after year after year and when Jesus died on the cross, all of those sins from the lives of those who lived under the Old Covenant were heaped upon Jesus vicarious sacrifice. So while the Bible does not specifically say they were ” rolled forward, ” they could not be actually forgiven until Christ died on the cross. So they were “rolled forward” because they remained unforgiven until Christ died.