1 Now even the first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly sanctuary. 2 For a tent was prepared, the outer one, in which were the lampstand and the table and the bread of the Presence; it is called the Holy Place. 3 Behind the second curtain stood a tent called the Holy of Holies, 4 having the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, which contained a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tables of the covenant, 5 above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these things we cannot now speak in detail.
6 These preparations having thus been made, the priests go continually into the outer tent, performing their ritual duties; 7 but into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood which he offers for himself and for the errors of the people. 8 By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the sanctuary is not yet opened while the first tabernacle still has any standing 9 (which is symbolic for the present age).
According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot fully perfect the conscience of the worshiper, 10 but deal only with food and drink and various ablutions, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation. 11 But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) 12 he entered once for all into the Holy Place, taking not the blood of goats and calves but his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. 13 For if the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls and with the ashes of a heifer sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, 14 how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify your conscience from dead works to worship the living God.
We continue today through the long middle section in Hebrews where the author fills out for his readers the wonderful, astonishing, and completed work of reconciliation that God accomplishes for us in His Son and our high priest, Jesus. I think that the author is answering for his readers, and for us, the question, “What, exactly, is the relationship between the long history of Israel, with its cultic practices and its laws, and Jesus?”
The Old Testament testifies to a relationship that God forged with this particular people for hundreds and hundreds of years. They were His people—He created them through Abraham, rescued them from slavery through Moses, gave them their whole system of worship and sacrifice and the law which was to shape their entire lives. God had also provided them a king in David and a line that He promised would continue.
Of course, David’s line was not still on the throne. And even the high priests were no longer chosen according to law—the Romans appointed someone to that office. And the temple was not the one that Solomon had built. The ark was gone by now as well.
All The various upheavals that the people of Israel had experienced had led them to become ever more focused on following the laws and the sacrifices. It was the observance of these things that gave them their identity. So, when Jesus came along, and the readers of this epistle had placed their trust in Him as the Messiah, they may have struggled with letting go of relying on all they had previously put their trust in.
After all, they may have reasoned, we acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah, but don’t we need to continue with our system of sacrifices? Don’t we still need to come to the temple on the Day of Atonement and wait as the high priest enters into the Holy of Holies on behalf of all the people? And what about the law and Moses? Surely we remain people of the law, do we not?
So the author carefully and diligently shows how Jesus, the Messiah, God’s Son, is the fulfillment of all that God has given them over their history, even those things that have not continued in their original form. All that God has spoken in the past, all that He has accomplished for them, has been to point to this word He speaks now in His Son, our great and faithful high priest. I love the patience and care that the author takes to help his readers more fully see the greatness of Jesus and to grow their trust in Him.
The author begins this section with a description of the tabernacle and its furniture, as it was directed to be built by God Himself to Moses. This is the tabernacle to which the author referred in the previous passage: “for when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, “See that you make everything according to the pattern which was shown you on the mountain” (8:5).
The tabernacle was a tent that consisted of two rooms, the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies. It was in the Holy of Holies that God’s very presence dwelt with His people. But the tabernacle was surrounded by a courtyard as well, which meant there were 3 sections. The people themselves could come into the courtyard, but not into the tent.
The priests, as the author tells us here, went in and out of the Holy Place daily and performed “their ritual duties”. The priests, on behalf of the people, could approach closer to the presence of God than the people themselves. There was a curtain that separated the Holy Place from the courtyard and another curtain, a thick one, that separated the Holy of Holies from the Holy Place. And, as the author will go on to say, the Holy of Holies was only entered once a year, and only by the high priest.
So when God established His covenant with the Israelites, promising that He would be their God and they His people, He established a way that He, the holy creator God, could actually dwell with a sinful, broken and rebellious people. He could not dwell directly with them in all His glory—they would not be able to live if He did. Therefore, God established a mediated relationship with His people.
This is the point the author is making in 9:1, “Now even the first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly sanctuary.” God made His covenant with the people and then gave, as an ordinance of grace, the system for where and how they would commune with Him, how they would receive and trust in His grace and be restored to communion—which is worship. In other words, God didn’t just make a covenant with these people and then leave it up to them to try and figure out an appropriate way to serve or worship Him. God provides for His people the way to respond, the way that they can dwell with Him as He dwells in their midst.
God gave Moses exact instructions as to the dimensions of the tabernacle and all the objects that were to be put into it. The author describes the tabernacle as it was originally directed to be built, not as it was in the time that he was writing his epistle. But in mentioning all these details, he is reminding his readers of God’s ordinances or regulations of worship, which were ordinances of grace.
The author’s purpose here is not to teach about these items, but to remind his readers of the regulations for worship set up with the first covenant. It is clear that his interest is primarily with the Holy of Holies because he spends far more time describing the ark of the covenant and the mercy seat than anything else (The author places the altar of incense in the Holy of Holies rather than the Holy Place where it actually stood. This is probably because it was closely associated in worship with the ark of the covenant and the mercy seat.).
It is into this second area, or tent, that the high priest enters just once a year. He passes through the second curtain, separating the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies, but not without taking the blood that “he offers for himself and for the errors of the people.” All of the gifts and sacrifices offered by the priests and high priests were done as part of the regulations for worship. In other words, the “sacrifice of lambs and bulls and goats were not ways of placating an angry God [or] currying favor with God… They were God-given covenantal witnesses to grace—that the God who alone could wipe out their sins would be gracious.” (Torrance, Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace)
The sacrifices then were not the reality. People were not to trust in the sacrifices, but in the God who gave them a particular way to worship and to whom they offered the sacrifices. But the sacrifices were to provide a faithful witness to the reality. You’ll notice here that the author speaks quite a bit about blood and the connection between the shedding and sprinkling of blood with purification. What is he talking about?
In Leviticus 17:14, God tells the Israelites that they are not to eat the blood of any creature because “the life of every creature is its blood”. It was blood that was sprinkled on the priests, the altars and the people to purify or consecrate them so that they could draw near to God. Life had to be given in exchange for the death that is brought about by their turning away from God in sin.
But, the author tells his readers, these sacrifices could not “fully perfect the conscience of the worshiper.” In the Old Testament, the conscience was understood to be the spur God used to lead a person to self-knowledge and confession of sin. The sacrifices offered by the priests could only deal with external matters and that is all they were ever meant to deal with. These sacrifices were imposed “until the time of reformation.”
In other words, the author is reminding his readers of the purpose, place, and limits of the sacrificial system that God had given them through Moses. The first covenant had its regulations for worship. But these God-given regulations were only to sanctify “for the purification of the flesh.” They couldn’t cleanse the conscience, couldn’t transform the heart as God had promised—the promise confirmed by Jeremiah just quoted in the previous passage. But the ordinances that God provided for the Israelites in the way of the tabernacle and the cultic system were not meant to open the way completely to God. They were signs pointing away from themselves to a greater time of reformation.
I think this is what the author is talking about as well in verses 8-9a “By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the sanctuary is not yet opened while the first tabernacle still has any standing (which is symbolic for the present age).” This follows a description of the high priest entering the Holy of Holies with his offering of blood for himself and his people. The sanctuary and the repeated sacrifices made in it were signs that the way into the sanctuary of God’s real presence was not yet opened. God was near and yet still, in a way, far.
Into this description of the tabernacle system of worship, the author then speaks of Christ. Christ is the high priest of “the good things that have come”—no longer in the future, but here and now! He enters, not into the tabernacle’s Holy of Holies, but into God’s full presence in the “greater and more perfect tent”. He enters once for all time, thus bringing the yearly repetition to an end. And He doesn’t bring the blood of goats and calves for Himself and the people, but His own blood for us. Thus He has secured for us an “eternal redemption”—not one that is temporal or decaying, but remains because it is eternal.
So Christ’s sacrifice of Himself is able to do what no previous sacrifice could accomplish, the purification of our consciences. Before we look more at this idea, I want to take a moment to look at how the author describes Christ’s offering of Himself in verse 14. Christ, “through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God.” Christ’s death for our redemption is an act of the whole triune God, and involves the inter-relations of Father, Son, and Spirit. This is how God was pleased to “bring many sons to glory.” Jesus, God’s Son, unites Himself to our fallen, broken humanity, and as our true high priest, offers His very self, through the Spirit, to His Father. Amazing!
I love what T. F. Torrance said in Atonement about the purification of our consciences in Christ, so I am going to quote him at length,
It is because in Jesus Christ the voice of the judge is identical with the voice of our high priest, because the very voice that condemns us is also the voice that freely forgives us, that Jesus Christ by his atonement purges our sinful conscience. … Under the Old Testament liturgy there is remembrance (anamnesis) of sin in every repeated act of sacrifice, but here in the new covenant there is no remembrance of sin at all, and so the conscience is purged of its guilty consciousness by the sprinkling of the blood of Chris upon it, as it is liturgically expressed. … [so] our conscience with him is altered from enmity to peace. But this purging of a guilty conscience means also the sanctification of the believer; that is to say, the believer is put in a relation of holiness to God, and so is dedicated or consecrated to God as a worshipper. By taking away guilt from their conscience Christ sets the believer free in a relation of rightness to the holy God and before him so they may worship him properly and freely. (p. 92)
Now that’s a reformation that we should never forget. It reorients all our worship with Jesus Christ himself our eternal high priest and worship leader. Wonderful!