Perhaps the place to begin answering our question is Hebrews 10:4 - "For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins." It is this verse that often spawns the question we are considering. After all, if animal sacrifices were powerless to take away sins, then it seems reasonable to suggest that no one living prior to Jesus' death would be forgiven of their sins.
But, is that a valid conclusion? The Old Testament provides abundant evidence to the contrary. Let us briefly consider five passages on this theme. Leviticus 5:13 states - "The priest shall make atonement for him, for his sin that he has committed in any of these matters; and it shall be forgiven him." In Numbers 14:19,20, Moses prayed - "'Pardon the iniquity of this people, I pray, according to the greatness of Your mercy, just as You have forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now.' Then the LORD said: 'I have pardoned, according to your word.'" II Chronicles 7:14 - "If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land." Isaiah 6:7 records - "And he touched my mouth with it [i.e., a live coal], and said: 'Behold, this has touched your lips; your iniquity is taken away, and your sin purged.'" And finally, Isaiah 44:22 where God declared - "I have blotted out, like a thick cloud, your transgressions, and like a cloud, your sins. Return to Me, for I have redeemed you."
These verses, and others, demonstrate the truth that forgiveness of sins was certainly possible prior to Jesus' crucifixion in approximately 30 AD. Of special interest are the emphasized phrases above that make use of the past tense in referring to the forgiveness of sins. Undoubtedly, some who lived prior to Jesus' crucifixion had their sins forgiven. This fact is further illustrated when one considers the instances in which Jesus forgave the sins of men and women during His earthly ministry. Take Matthew 9:2 for example - "Then behold, they brought to Him a paralytic lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, 'Son, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you.'"
So, how can we harmonize Hebrews 10:4 (which affirms that animal sacrifices could not take away sins) with the many passages that teach that forgiveness of sins was possible prior to Jesus' sacrificial death? That is an excellent question, and we will endeavor to answer it in tomorrow's lesson.