The Book of Hebrews
Now the first covenant had regulations for worship and also an earthly sanctuary. A tabernacle was set up. In its first room were the lampstand and the table with its consecrated bread; this was called the Holy Place. Behind the second curtain was a room called the Most Holy Place, which had the golden altar of incense and the gold-covered ark of the covenant. This ark contained the gold jar of manna, Aaron’s staff that had budded, and the stone tablets of the covenant. Above the ark were the cherubim of the Glory, overshadowing the atonement cover. But we cannot discuss these things in detail now.
When everything had been arranged like this, the priests entered regularly into the outer room to carry on their ministry. But only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance. The Holy Spirit was showing by this that the way into the Most Holy Place had not yet been disclosed as long as the first tabernacle was still functioning. This is an illustration for the present time, indicating that the gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper. They are only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings—external regulations applying until the time of the new order.
But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!
For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.
In the case of a will, it is necessary to prove the death of the one who made it, because a will is in force only when somebody has died; it never takes effect while the one who made it is living. This is why even the first covenant was not put into effect without blood. When Moses had proclaimed every command of the law to all the people, he took the blood of calves, together with water, scarlet wool and branches of hyssop, and sprinkled the scroll and all the people. He said, “This is the blood of the covenant, which God has commanded you to keep.” In the same way, he sprinkled with the blood both the tabernacle and everything used in its ceremonies. In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.
It was necessary, then, for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these sacrifices, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with human hands that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence. Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own. Otherwise Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But he has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.
At the beginning of the last chapter, we saw the writer making the connection between the old temple and the role of the priests, with the real temple that is heaven, and the new High priest, Jesus. He begins chapter 9 expanding on this concept, breaking down in more detail the make up and the functions of the temple as it was known and practiced for hundreds of years up until that time.
The Ark of the Covenant was a sacred piece of furniture designed by God for the sole purpose of housing the tablets of the Ten Commandments first given to Moses, and thus indicated God’s presence. While the outer part of the temple was used by all the priests for regular ministry, where the Ark was housed, was in an inner sanctuary, the most holy place – often referred to as the “Holy of Holies.” No one but the high priest could enter, and even then, he could only enter once per year to make special atonement for the people and himself. Atonement was an offering symbolizing remorse and repentance. In keeping with God’s early requirements, without the shedding of blood, there was no forgiveness. Only blood was able to purify. Therefore, an animal’s blood was always used as a substitute for man’s. These are the some of the most important religious cornerstones that every Hebrew hearing this letter would be well familiar with.
However, verse 9 introduces a new word into the discussion of a covenant and the ability to keep it. The word is conscience. The writer points out that all these regulations could only cleanse the exterior but were unable to clear the conscience. He then makes the home run in verse 13 by proposing that: if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of heifers could sanctify people to make them at least externally clean, how much more the blood of Christ, God’s chosen unblemished man, cleanse our inner being—our conscience. He entered the real Holy of Holies—heaven itself after he had shed his own blood once and for all of us. Now, there is no more need for an animal substitute or the annual atonement.
Through this great act of His love towards us, God has put His Law in our minds and written them on our hearts. Now we will never forget the extent to which He went to save us from death. His love and kindness remains in our conscience forever. “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
Questions to ponder:
- It’s interesting how much clearer things can be when we look back. How is this letter to the Hebrews helping you to understand your own history which God has been working out since the beginning of time?
- Do you sometimes find that more often you opt to do the thing that appears more sure or comfortable or traditional although knowing that God has a more beneficial way for you?