Having begun to show the weakness of the Levitical priesthood when compared to that of Melchizedek, the author continues in the same vein. Levitical priests are sinners themselves and have to keep offering sacrifices day after day and year after year, and then they die and another one takes their place to do the same thing all over again. We need a high priest who isn’t a sinner, who only needs to offer one sacrifice, who lives forever and can save us forever.
The High Priest of a New Covenant
The point of what we are saying is this: We do have such a high priest, who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, and who serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by man.
Every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices, and so it was necessary for this one also to have something to offer. If he were on earth, he would not be a priest, for there are already men who offer the gifts prescribed by the law. They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. This is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: “See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.” [Exodus 25:40] But the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, and it is founded on better promises. (Hebrews 8:1-6)
Everything Moses built in the wilderness was a copy of something He saw in Heaven. It was designed for Earth to be a replica of the real thing in Heaven. Therefore the promises that accompanied it were not as good as the promises that accompany the real thing. No Levitical Priest ever went into Heaven to sit at the right hand of Majesty, nor could any of them offer himself as our sacrifice. The best the Old Covenant could do is set aside the sins of the people, and that only if its regulations were strictly followed. But our High Priest did enter Heaven and does sit at the right hand of God. And because of His perfect sacrifice, the New Covenant separates us from our sins as far as the East is from the West and requires no supplemental work on our part to keep it that way.
For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another. But God found fault with the people and said:
“The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they did not remain faithful to my covenant, and I turned away from them, declares the Lord. This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.
For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” [Jere. 31:31-34]
By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear. (Hebr. 8:7-13)
This passage from Jeremiah 31 shows that the New Covenant is not a New Testament Idea meant only for the Church. Jesus came to offer this covenant to Israel and one day soon they’ll accept it. When the writer said that God had found fault with the people under the Old Covenant, he meant that they couldn’t keep it and make themselves faultless. So a new and better covenant had to be offered, and when it was, the old one had to become obsolete. If his readers went back to the old covenant they were not only trying to supplement the real thing with a copy, but the copy had been made obsolete and could no longer offer even its limited promises. For us, it’s important to understand that any religious work we do in an effort to earn or keep our salvation actually makes our situation worse, not better, because our work can’t do anything for us, and instead causes us to lose blessings we might have otherwise received as a reward for our faith.
Worship in the Earthly Tabernacle
Now the first covenant had regulations for worship and also an earthly sanctuary. A tabernacle was set up. In its first room were the lamp stand, the table and the 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. (Hebr. 9:1-5)
For his first century readers this would have been a totally unnecessary review of the tabernacle’s layout, repeated in the Temple. Many of them had been priests who had served in the Temple. But the Holy Spirit wanted us to get a picture of this too, to better understand the Old Covenant. What the writer called the lamp stand was the seven branched golden menorah that burned a special blend of oil and spices and was kept lit continuously. It was the only light in these windowless rooms. On a table covered in gold, they placed 12 loaves of bread mixed with frankincense, one for each of the 12 tribes. These went into the outer room, called the Holy Place, where the priests did their work. A thick tapestry separated it from the Most Holy Place which held the golden incense altar, the Ark of the Covenant, and the Mercy Seat, also called the Atonement Cover. Affixed to its top of it were representations of Cherubim, one on each end, with their wings spread to touch in the middle. When placed atop the four foot long Ark, the cover with its Cherubim resembled the sides and back of a chair. This was the Throne of God. His Presence hovered above the Ark between the Cherubim.
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 standing. 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. (Hebr. 9:6-10)
Only the High Priest could enter the Most Holy Place, and him only once a year, on Yom Kippur, and then only after great ceremonial preparation. Each time he entered he brought the blood of the sacrifice to set aside the sins of the people for the prior year, which he sprinkled over the Atonement Cover. No one else could come into the presence of God, because the blood of those animals didn’t cleanse the people of their sins. It only set them aside. Had anyone entered into the Throne Room of God they would have immediately died. In fact even on the appointed day, the High Priest had to wear a rope around his foot so he could be pulled out if his preparation has not been sufficient or his sacrifice wasn’t acceptable, resulting in his death.
When the priest sprinkled the blood of the sacrifice on the Atonement Cover he was performing a symbolic act. The idea was that as God Who hovered above looked down into the the Ark and saw his broken Laws, He would be looking through the blood the High Priest had sprinkled there to make atonement for the people and His anger would be set aside.
The Blood of Christ
When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, 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, having obtained 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!(Hebr. 9:11-14)
Jesus didn’t carry the blood of a goat into the copy of the sanctuary here on Earth. He brought His own blood into the real one in Heaven. This is why on Resurrection morning He cautioned Mary not to cling to Him because He hadn’t ascended to His Father yet. (John 20:17) He was on His way to perform his final act as our High Priest in cleansing us from our sins once and for all. He was going to sprinkle His own blood on the Atonement Cover in Heaven. Now when God looked down upon His broken Law He would see the blood of His own Son and be reconciled to us forever. (Colossians 1:19-20).
This is because His offering of blood didn’t just outwardly sanctify the people for the year past as the Levitical offerings had done. His blood cleansed us internally forever. Now we can go boldly and with confidence to the throne of God whenever we like, without fear or trepidation (Ephes. 3:12). And whenever we do, the King of all Creation brings the business of the universe to a standstill to lovingly give us His full attention.
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 commandment 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.”[Exodus 24:8] 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. (Hebr. 9:15-22)
The Greek words for will and covenant are the same in this passage and underscore the legal nature of the relationship. And as we know the most recent version of such a document is given precedence over prior ones in determining the intentions of its author. The new one makes the old one obsolete.
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 man-made sanctuary 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. Then Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But now he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him. (Hebr. 9:23-28)
It was alright to sanctify the Earthly copies with blood that was only temporarily sufficient, but with the Heavenly originals the offering had to be permanent. Only the blood of the eternal Son of God would do. And since His blood is eternally sufficient, he only had to offer it once for all of time. No more endless line of priests that weren’t perfect offering blood that wasn’t sufficient in a copy that wasn’t permanent. Just as man only dies once before facing judgment, the Son of Man only had to die once to pay the full penalty that our judgment would otherwise require. The next time we see Him He won’t be bearing our sins, but handing us our pardons.
The more I study Hebrews the more convinced I become that the letter was written to confirm our security, not to deny it. Next time we’ll take care of chapter 10 and put all this “lose your salvation” business behind us for good. See you then.