Welcome back to our study of the Hebrews, today we’ll be looking at Hebrews 9:1-10, the inferior old covenant sanctuary. Let’s quickly recall what we talked about last week. We mentioned the better promises of the new covenant inaugurated by Jesus. In the gospels, we read about Jesus last Supper when He tells his disciples that his blood, is the blood of the new covenant. He sealed that covenant when he said it is finished before He breathed his last. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews has been showing with ever chapter that the old covenant was indeed passing away. In chapter 9, verses 1 through 10 , we’ll be looking at the earthly sanctuary of the old covenant and its inferiority to the new.
The Old Covenant Sanctuary’s Inferiority
Worship in the Earthly Tabernacle
9 Now the first covenant had regulations for worship and also an earthly sanctuary. 2 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. 3 Behind the second curtain was a room called the Most Holy Place, 4 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. 5 Above the ark were the cherubim of the Glory, overshadowing the atonement cover. But we cannot discuss these things in detail now.
6 When everything had been arranged like this, the priests entered regularly into the outer room to carry on their ministry. 7 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. 8 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. 9 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. 10 They are only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings—external regulations applying until the time of the new order.
- Verse 1
We need to understand why the writer begins with the words recorded in verse 1. He ended chapter 8 by saying that the first covenant was becoming obsolete, it was coming to an end because it was provisional, God set it in motion to serve as a temporary alliance between Him and His people. And to ensure that His people would understand that, God designed the tabernacle of Moses in such a way that its arrangement and structure would convey concisely His plan to dwell among His people. This is the foundational piece to the writer’s argument in this chapter. That’s why he uses the word “even” to indicate that the tabernacle erected by Moses was set in a way to convey God’s ultimate purpose clearly without confusion. God is light, in Him there is no darkness at all. He doesn’t try to conceal His plan in such a way that no one can see what HE plans to do. Now we need to know what made the first covenant weak and inferior. The first reason is- it was an earthly tabernacle. We’ll see that in verse 11. The scripture tells us that “But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come,[e] then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation)”. What caused the weakness? First and foremost, it was defiled by man’s hands because the priests and the people were not perfect. They were imperfect people ( because of their sinful nature) who tainted the sanctuary. This is why the priests had to be very careful in the way they were performing their rituals, or ultimate death was awaiting them. In 2 Samuel 6:5-7, we read the account of Uzzah. He touched the ark of God to prevent it from falling on the earth and the anger of the Lord burned against him and he was struck dead. I’m bringing this up to show you the sinfulness of man before a Holy God. And furthermore, even when Moses was receiving the instructions to build the tabernacle, he was warned as to erect it according to the pattern he was shown. Which means that the earthly one is inferior and a mere representation of the heavenly one. Also, the temple was built with materials that eventually would need repairs. The temple was also limited geographically, it had to be dismantled and the various parts carried from place to place. And it was built only to serve the Jewish nation; the gentiles were not included directly in this old system. Acts 7:48-50, Acts 17:24-28 teach us that every Jewish person was well aware of the fact that God didn’t dwell in temples built by mankind.
- Verses 2-5
The tabernacle arrangement and regulations were not meaningless. There was a message behind every one its elements. Each piece of furniture was symbolic, a copy or replica of the actual heavenly tabernacle that can’t be seen by the naked eye. We’ll briefly talk about each of the element and their spiritual meaning. The first element is the lampstand commonly called the Menorah, seven branches golden candlestick ( mentioned in Exodus 25:31-40). It is a symbol of the nation of Israel and its mission to be “a light unto the nations, as mentioned in Isaiah 42:6.
Jesus Christ is the real light of the world as given in John 8:12. And we as His followers are to let our lights shine before others, so that they may see our good works and give glory to our Father who is in heaven (Matthew 5:16). The next element is the table of showbread. Each Sabbath, the priest would remove the old loaves and put fresh loaves on the table. Then the old loaves would be eaten only by the priests in the sanctuary. The loaves were called the bread of the presence and the table was called the table of the presence. It symbolized God’s presence that sustained the twelve tribes of Israel. The gentiles were not involved in this process, at least not directly. While they may have not been involved directly, the Jewish nation as we saw from the Menorah, was supposed to be a light to the gentiles. But some of them missed the ultimate purpose of God. Today “the bread of presence” is the Lord Jesus who is the bread/manna of God sent from heaven ( John 6). In the Lord’s prayer, we say give us this day our daily bread. Jesus reminds us of this as well when He responded to satan’s temptation with the words- man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. While the natural body may need food to survive, the Spiritual body feeds on the word of God, Jesus, the bread of life.
The next element was the golden altar, the altar of incense. It stood in front of the veil that divided the Holy of Holies from the Holy Place. Each morning and evening, the priest on duty would burn incense on this altar. In Psalm 141:2, David describes it as a picture of prayer ascending to God. It can be a reminder of Jesus Christ our High Priest interceding for us before the Father.
Now let’s enter the Holy Of Holies and mention its only element, the ark of the covenant. This was symbolic of the throne of God in the tabernacle ( Exodus 25:10-22, Psalm 80:1, Psalm 99:1). What is so important about the ark of the covenant? On the day of atonement, blood would be sprinkled on the mercy seat to cover the tables of the Law within the ark. God did not look at the broken law; HE saw the blood and the sins of the people were covered by the blood. Notice that I said covered, and covered until the time of reformation. Jesus Christ is the real and true mercy seat, His blood is the propitiation and expiation for our sins. ( 1 John 2:22, Romans 3:25). His blood does not just cover sins, it takes away sins. Basically what the writer was trying to communicate to his readers was this. While many symbolic truths may be wrapped in these pieces of furniture, they are only symbolic and not the spiritual reality, because the reality rests in Jesus and His work on the cross. And this is why the old covenant was inferior, because all it was, was symbolism. And its purpose was to lead the worshippers to the true realities, they were to be looking forward to the coming of the One, He that could take away sin. The old covenant was to keep their mind on the promised final covenant of God in Jesus. But unfortunately, many got caught up in the old and missed the new when Jesus came to bring about the reformation.
- Verses 6-7
Another inferiority of the old system was its inaccessibility by the common people. Other than the Levite priests, no one else was allowed in the tabernacle. It wasn’t accessible to the people. Family representatives were allowed in the courts as they brought in their offerings to the altar of sacrifice. But only the priests and the high priests were permitted to enter the tabernacle. And about the tabernacle, only the High Priest was allowed in the Holy Of Holies, and only once a year. And before he entered, he had to make offers for his own sins and the unintentional sins of the people. We talked about God not making provisions for high handed sins, I just wanted to quickly remind you of that. We don’t understand how good we have it today. We have access to the throne of Grace where Christ is seated. We can approach God’s throne ( real throne) not an earthly one ( not a replica) because of Jesus’ work on the cross. Our sins are not just covered, they are washed away, removed from us that we may come in with confidence. When we pray, we are actually entering the real Holy Of Holies, this is why we can’t be cavaliers about approaching God. This is why the writer tells his readers in Hebrews 4:14-16
14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven,[a] Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. 16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
For them it was revolutionary news, it was incredible.
- Verse 8
In verse 8, the writer is explaining the reasons behind the regulations of the old covenant. The tabernacle as we saw had two sections, the Holy Place and the Holy Of Holies. Why? Those two words sound redundant. What is the difference between Holy and Holy Of Holies. For the sake of showing us the glory of the real tabernacle of God, the writers under the Holy Spirit leading risked redundancy. It was to show that while this earthly, weak Holy place was still operational, access to Holy Of Holies, ( the real sanctuary of God) would be denied. Which means that the Holy Place had to be set aside, and replaced eventually.
While the old system was operational, God was showing that Jesus hadn’t yet completed His work ( even though for all eternity God had already decided how HE was going to save mankind). Prior to the advent of Christ, the old covenant had to be put in place, to serve as a temporary, provisional remedy. But once Jesus said it was finished and breathed His last as recorded in Matthew 27:50-51, the curtain was torn from top to bottom, and the Holy Of Holies was made accessible, which means the end of the Holy Place and all the other regulations. Can you imagine how scandalous it would’ve been for the priests when the veil was torn. All the priests could see in the Holy of Holies. No one would dare tear the veil and God was showing then that HE was the one behind the tearing, yet some still didn’t get it.
- Verses 9-10
Another weakness of the old covenant is that the sacrifices offered on the mercy seat could never change the heart or the conscience of the worshiper. All of the ceremonies associated with the tabernacle had to with with ceremonial purity, not moral purity. They were carnal ordinances that pertained to the outer man but could not change the inner man. Basically the sacrifices offered under the old system didn’t free the worshiper from a guilty conscience for they could not remove sins.
To better understand what Jesus has done, let us again go to Zechariah 3.
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