Reformed Perspectives Magazine, Volume 10, Number 30, July 20 to July 26 2008

Hebrews 9:1-14

A Sermon

By Scott Lindsay

One day, Perkins Road will be finished. One day, all the heavy machinery will be gone, the mountains of dirt on either side of the road will be leveled, the massive holes and ditches filed in, the pipes all connected, the road expanded and resurfaced, the lines re-drawn, and the lights reset. One day, Perkins Road will be finished. When it is that will be a good day.

But for now, what we have is a temporary roadway with holes, bumps, barricades, detours, and very slow traffic. What we have now serves a purpose. It gets us where we are going, even if it gets us there much later than we have planned. However, it serves a purpose, it is useful, and it accomplishes something.

Yet it still leaves a lot to be desired, doesn't it? It is nothing like what the new, finished Perkins Road will be. It cannot do what the new road will be able to do, namely facilitate and streamline the traffic flow in this part of the city. That is the theory at least.

So, if you were to ask me what I thought about Perkins Road I would tell you that it is alright, as far as it goes. It is not perfect, but it will do for now. I will also tell you that every time I drive Perkins Road I look forward to the day when it will be replaced with something far better.

That is the sort of analogy used by one writer to, as I believe; helpfully introduce the passage that is before us this morning. In a similar sort of way, the writer of Hebrews, in chapter 9:1-14, presents a brief description of the former Tabernacle and its priests and how they functioned under the Old Covenant in much the same way as a temporary roadway functions. The Old Testament tabernacle system was something which was useful, but which also had some severe limitations. It was only ever intended to "hold us over" until such time that the thing which it pointed to could be set in place. So it was, at one and the same moment, that which was helpful and at the same time unsettling and dis-satisfying. For all of its splendor and grandeur, and in spite of the sacred things that took place within it, it still left you needing something more!

That is the sort of thing we'll be looking at this morning. But before we go any further, let us pray.

Now, those of you who have been with us for this series should, I hope, by this time have a good grasp of this book's main message, namely that Jesus' word and work are better than anything that the readers of this letter might be tempted to abandon Jesus for. As the recipients of this letter were mainly Jewish Christians under a great deal of persecution and pressure, the thing that they would most likely be tempted to abandon Jesus for was that which was familiar to them and which was so much a part of their former way of life - the Old Testament system of temples and priests and sacrifices.

Being fully aware of how strong this temptation is for them, the writer of Hebrews has set himself to the task of showing how Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament symbols and practices they are so drawn to. Those things, argues the writer of Hebrews, are like a shadow or sign that alerts us to look beyond them to that which they represent, or toward which they are pointing — that is, the thing, or person, toward which they are pointing is Jesus.

Well, after showing that Jesus is superior in his revelation of God, and superior to angels and to the prophets, and to Moses, the writer has been working, most recently, to show how Jesus' priesthood and priestly work are superior to any other priest or priestly work that has gone before. Because it is superior, it is something that ought to be cherished and held on to, and not abandoned, no matter how great the pressure might be to do so.

Now, so far, in making his case for the superiority of Christ's priesthood, the writer has shown us a number of things:

...that Christ's priesthood is legitimate even if it is not after the order of Aaron, or of the tribe of Levi, because it is of the order of Melchizedek, which is a superior priesthood because it is both older and it is an eternal priesthood, and therefore cannot and will not be interrupted by death.

...Christ is a better priest because of the suffering he endured as a result of his obedience not his disobedience.

...Christ is a better priest because he was tempted in every way, just as we are, but without ever sinning or giving into it.

...Christ's priesthood is better because, unlike the previous priesthood, Christ's was confirmed by an oath made by God himself.

...Christ is a better priest because of his sinless character and, as a result of that, he does not need to offer sacrifices for his own sin, and he functions as the only perfect priest that we have ever had, or ever will have.

...Christ is a better priest because he only offered one sacrifice that was completely sufficient, for all time, while the former priests had to keep repeating their sacrifices endlessly.

...Christ is a better priest because the temple that he serves in is the real thing, not the earthly copy that all the other priests served in.

...Christ's priesthood is better because it is linked to a better covenant, not a covenant whose time has come and gone, and which is becoming obsolete.

All of these things we have seen thus far with regard to Christ's priesthood. To this already impressive list, we will add three more reasons why Christ's priesthood is superior: 1) because it gives us full and complete access to God, 2) because it purifies and cleanses what the Old Testament system could never purify - namely our conscience, and 3) because the forgiveness and pardon it brings does not run out in a year's time and thus have to be renewed.

Read Hebrews 9:1-14:

Now even the first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly place of holiness. For a tent was prepared, the first section, in which were the lampstand and the table and the bread of the Presence. It is called the Holy Place. Behind the second curtain was a second section called the Most Holy Place, having the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, in which was a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron's staff that budded, and the tablets of the covenant. Above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these things we cannot now speak in detail. These preparations having thus been made, the priests go regularly into the first section, performing their ritual duties, 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 unintentional sins of the people. By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing (which is symbolic for the present age). According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation. 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) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.
Now for many people, the verses I just read to you, will not be heard with a great deal of enthusiasm. One reason for that is the fact that the Old Testament is a largely unfamiliar book for most Christians. So, when the writer of Hebrews, as he does here, makes reference to certain items or events from the Old Testament, it does not mean anything to many people because they do not have a point of reference for making sense of it all.

Now that problem is one that we are committed to addressing here in South Baton Rouge. Lord willing, as we continue to open up more and more books of the Bible, your grasp of the amazing depth and intricacy and breadth of the Scriptures will grow. And with that growth will come a greater and greater appreciation of books like Hebrews which are written on the assumption that the readers already have a context for understanding what is being said.

So, if the things just read to you do not yet give rise to a spark of recognition, then I have two things to say to you this morning: 1) Be patient, it will come in time and 2) if that time is not now but will come when we get to books like Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers.

However, there is no need to despair because understanding in detail everything mentioned in this passage is not really necessary for getting the main point of what is being said here. The reason that we know that is true is because the writer signals this by what he says in verse 5.

With that small caveat in place, the first thing I want you to see here is the description, in verses 1-5, of what the Old Testament Tabernacle was like. As we saw last week, the Tabernacle was, in essence, a very fancy tent that functioned, as Hebrews 9:1 says, as "an earthly place of holiness." The people of God carried the Tabernacle around with them and would set it up in each place where they encamped. Once it was set up, it served as the meeting place between God and His people. To put it another way, it was a place where God was, in a certain sense, locally present, in the midst of his people.

The tabernacle consisted of three areas, but the writer of Hebrews is only concerned with two of them here. There was a sort of "courtyard" area surrounding a more central structure that was divided into two parts. The first section was known as "the Holy Place" and could only be entered into by the priests who served in the Tabernacle. No one else could go there.

The second, or inner- most of the two parts was a place called "the Holy of Holies" and was separated from the first part by a kind of screen or curtain that completely concealed what was inside. The only person who could go into that part of the Tabernacle was the High Priest, and he only went on one day of the year - the Day of Atonement - when he would make a sacrifice for the nation as a whole.

Contained within these two chambers that made up the main part of the Tabernacle could be found a number of items that were deeply significant for the people of God. Indeed, some of the items in the Tabernacle were actually built according to very specific, verbal instructions which God himself gave to Moses.

For instance, there was an "altar of incense" there. It served as a sign of the mediation or communication between God and his people, carried out through his priests — their prayers rising to the heavens on the peoples' behalf, just as the smoke rose from the incense.

There was the Ark of the Covenant which was basically this very fancy, ornate box that had a vacant seat - the mercy seat - on top of it and which served as a sign of God's presence and rule over his people. Inside the box or "ark" was a jar of manna, preserved from the days when God's people had wandered in the wilderness and he had provided for them there.

There was also Aaron's rod or staff which, quite miraculously, began to bloom with flowers at a very crucial point of Israel's history - i.e., when God was showing his people which tribe his priests would come from.

Perhaps the most significant thing to be found in the Ark were the stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments written by the very finger of God.

In short, gathered together in this relatively small space, were the deepest and most significant symbols and artifacts that could be found from within the entire Old Testament period. So, these were no ordinary things. They were amazing, almost legendary symbols of God's presence and power exercised amidst his people.

In a very crude analogy, it would be like gathering all the symbols of American history and culture into one room - the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Liberty Bell, the flag hand-sewn by Betsy Ross, and so on. Gather up all those things and put them in one place and that, in a very crude and admittedly inadequate way, is what you have going on here, in the Tabernacle. Everything in there tells a story. Everything in there points beyond itself to something greater. Everything in there points to the power, and majesty, and holiness and mercy of a God who is both awful and awesome to behold. It was a holy place, a sacred place.

Now why does the writer of Hebrews say all these things? What is the point of going into all this detail about the structure and contents of the Tabernacle? The answer is, he does it because he is about to make a very important observation about the Tabernacle and what it all meant.

What that observation is, we will see in a moment. Before we do that, I want to move to the next section, verses 6-10, and spend a few minutes thinking, not about the structure and contents of the Tabernacle but about the things that went on inside of it. I want to look for a moment at what the priests and High Priest did when they were carrying out their regular duties there.

In the first section, the Holy Place, is where the ordinary priests would carry out their regular functions, which included things like preparing and setting in place the twelve loaves of bread on the Table of the Presence. This happened every week, on the Sabbath. In addition to that, every day a priest would enter into the Holy Place and trim the lampstand and burn incense before the Lord.

This is, in fact, precisely what John the Baptist's father was doing - burning incense as a priest in the first section of the Temple - the Holy Place - when the Lord's angel appeared to him to tell him that his wife, Elizabeth, would soon bear him a son. Some of you may recall that event from Luke's Gospel.

At any rate, there were certain regular priestly functions that happened in the Holy Place on a daily and weekly basis. When it came to the "Most Holy Place," or the "Holy of Holies," that chamber was visited once a year by the High Priest alone. He dared not enter into that place without an offering of blood as a sacrifice, as a covering for his own sin, and for the sin of the people whom he represented.

Now, you will note that the writer of Hebrews here talks about his making sacrifices for the unintentional sins of the people. In making this sort of distinction, the writer is not meaning to say that the only sins that were covered in the Old Testament were ones that were committed in ignorance. That is not the point of the word unintentional. The word "unintentional" includes the idea of deliberate sin, but is contrasted in the Old Testament with sin that is high-handed, and which is a defiant and knowing rejection of God - a sin that is a betrayal of a former trust, a sin that despises God and holds Him in contempt. For sin such as that, there was no sacrifice available - neither in the Old Testament or in the New Testament. The writer of Hebrews chooses his words carefully, as he must, because he has already addressed this sort of sin in chapter 6, and he will do so once more in chapter 10.

And this whole situation - both the fact that there were two sections within the Tabernacle, which greatly restricted access, and the repetitive nature of what went on there — that whole situation, says the writer of Hebrews in verses 8 and 9, is symbolic of the present age - meaning the age in which his readers had grown up. It was a picture of the true situation, of how things were up until the moment when Christ came.

You see, the Old Testament system, for all its grandeur and pageantry, and in spite of the good and necessary role that it played in God's purposes was only designed to accomplish just so much, and no more. It was Perkins Road under construction. Or, better yet, as one writer puts it, what the Tabernacle, and then later on the Temple, had to offer was this:

a) extremely limited access to God for a select few

b) external and temporary cleansing

c) limited pardon

Let us think about these three things for a moment. First, think about the issue of access to God. To be sure, as we have seen, the Tabernacle was a great thing and served a great purpose. However, the message that it sent was a mixed one, at best. On the one hand, there was the message of mercy and grace and forgiveness. That is all good. At the same time, the means by which these realities are communicated was this symbol of God's presence - this Tabernacle - that no ordinary man or woman could ever enter into, and which contained these amazing artifacts and reminders of God's greatness that they could never lay eyes on, with an interior chamber that only a handful of priests could access, and one particular chamber that only one priest could ever access.

In short, the other message being sent by the Tabernacle, as Dick Lucas puts it, was "Keep out. Do not come in. Maintain your distance." It was a message that said one might draw near to God - to a point - but then no further. Now, as we will see in a moment, there was an important reason for that message. Nevertheless, it was still a message of restricted access.

Then, along with the message of restricted access there is this matter of external cleansing. As the writer of Hebrews puts it, in verses 9 and 10, the gifts and sacrifices offered in the Tabernacle are only good at a surface level. They only deal with matters of food and drink, with various washings (which had to do with ritual purification) and certain regulations for the body. In other words, the Old Testament system only dealt with external realities - not internal realities, such as the conscience.

To be sure, it is not as if the people in the Old Testament did not have their consciences eased by what went on in the Tabernacle. They certainly did. At the same time, while their consciences were eased, they were never "perfected," to use the language of Hebrews. That is, their conscience was never completely put at ease. Indeed, how could it be? Every day there stood this structure that reminded you that the wrath of God was still being assuaged, that it was till being addressed, that it still needed to be kept a bay by means of this ongoing system of sacrifice.

This of course is the third thing - the limited pardon that was available through the Tabernacle. No matter how efficacious the sacrifices were, no matter how devotedly the Temple requirements were kept, or how sincere the High Priest performed his duties - especially on the Day of Atonement - the reality is that as soon as his work was finished, you could pull out your calendar or palm pilot or PDA and go ahead and schedule the next Day of Atonement. Because whatever just happened had a use by date. It was a limited pardon.

There you have it: (1) restricted access to God, (2) external cleansing, and (3) limited pardon. This is the important point the writer of Hebrews wants us to understand about the Tabernacle. That is what the Tabernacle had to offer. That was the most and best it could be expected to do. It is in precisely these three areas that the superiority of Christ is seen, once again,

Hebrews 9:11-14 But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater a 1 nd more perfect tent ( not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) 12 he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of 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 sanctifies1 for the purification of the flesh, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our1 conscience from dead works to serve the living God.
Christ, as our High Priest, addresses the three limitations of the Tabernacle quite beautifully. With regard to the matter of limited access, the writer of Hebrews tells us in verse 8 that the "way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is standing" — in other words, as long as things like the Tabernacle were necessary, as long as there were these Holy Places with a first section reserved only for priests and a second section only for the High Priest - as long as that sort of thing is still in operation, the way into the holy places is not open.

However, as the writer of Hebrews indicates here, Christ has fulfilled, permanently and perfectly the functions of the Tabernacle. He entered "once for all" into the holy places. He did so, not by means of the blood of goats and calves, but by means of his own blood.

Now, to be sure, the sacrifices which God commanded and required in the Old Testament were a good thing. As N.T. Wright notes, they pointed beyond themselves to the greater work of Christ in a number of ways. Just as the animals used were to be "unblemished" - i.e., the best and most perfect animal you could find, so was Christ "unblemished" - the spotless, perfect Lamb of God. Just as the Old Testament sacrifices involved the shedding of blood, by another creature that was not actually the guilty party - in other words, it was substitutionary - so too was Christ's sacrifice a substitutionary one.

Finally, just as the Old Testament sacrifices did something to address the breached relationship between God and his people, so too does Christ's sacrifice repair the fractured relationship between God and His people - only in a better and permanent way.

So, the Old Testament sacrifices were good and right and necessary, and served a purpose both in what they accomplished for God's people then and in the significance that they have for God's people now.

Nevertheless, the blood of goats and calves could not accomplish the full forgiveness and eternal redemption that was needed. As one commentator (Hughes) puts it:

Animals are not moral creatures..... and neither by nature nor in any moral sense were they fitted to take the place of man who is answerable for his conduct and morally defiled in his conscience at the deep center of his being. By contrast, Christ, the incarnate Son, is a fellow human being, partaking of our own human nature, and therefore, as man, fully qualified to stand in for us as our substitute, a man morally perfect with an undefiled conscience before God, competent to offer up the completely efficacious sacrifice of his own unblemished person in satisfaction for our sins and for the purifying of our consciences....
And so, again, Christ has perfectly and permanently fulfilled the functions of the Tabernacle and Temple. And what was the sign that this was so? Matthew's Gospel, in one of the most revealing passages in all of Scriptures, puts it succinctly and clearly:
Matthew 27:50-51 And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.
The way into the holiest place of all was blown wide open at Jesus' death. Restricted access has now become open access for all those who are in Christ. No more barriers. All who are his can now draw near. Very near.

Next, with regard to the matter of the external and temporary cleansing - this too has been addressed by Christ as our High Priest. As verse 14 makes clear, the effect of Christ's priestly work is to purify our consciences from dead works, in order that we might serve the living God.

Now, the thing I want you to see here is this relationship between what Christ did, its affect upon our conscience, and how that relates back to this whole matter of access to God. Think about the Tabernacle again and, in particular, about this curtain that separated the holy place from the most holy place. The thing about this curtain was not that you could not get past it. Anybody could have walked in and gotten past it. It was not this impenetrable barrier that you could not get through. Instead it was a symbolic barrier that you must not go through. Why? Because you would surely die if you did. Because you had no right to be there. Because the cleansing and covering that you had by means of the Old Testament system of sacrifices was external and temporary, but it did not address your sin and your heart at the deepest level - at the level of your conscience before God. Only Christ's sacrifice would be sufficient to do that.

Only Christ's sacrifice has done that. The once-for-allness of it, if I can put it that way, clearly indicates where we stand in relation to God and his holiness, justice, and mercy. The fact that we have no "Days of Atonement" on our calendars tells us that what Christ accomplished was more than external and temporary.

Because of that our consciences - i.e., that part of us that knows we are accountable to God - has been addressed and we are purified and delivered from the bondage that comes from thinking that something yet remains to be done - that there is some work that must yet be performed. The complete sufficiency of what Christ has done, delivers us from all such "dead works" as Hebrews says, from any sort of "religious" approach to God.

Finally, with regard to the matter of limited pardon - this too has been addressed by Christ's priestly work which, as the writer of Hebrews says in verse 12, has secured an "eternal redemption." What Christ accomplished was nothing less than a full pardon. That pardon will be good next year, and the year after, and every year after that, for those who are his, until either we go to meet him, or he comes to take us home.

To what end has Christ done all this? What is the purpose of this astonishing, eternal redemption that Christ has achieved? Verse 14 tells us: to serve the living God.

Now these words, it seems to me, stand in contrast to the "dead works" just spoken of. In order to fully understand them, you have to think again about the original recipients of this letter. As we have seen a number of times now, many of them were flirting with the notion of abandoning their Christian faith and returning to their former ways and practices. However, the writer of Hebrews' point is that for them to do so would be to engage in "dead works." It would be to return to a system that, before Christ came was, at best, restricted, superficial, and limited but which now, since Christ has come, has been rendered completely obsolete and pointless, and of no value whatsoever. Christ has not achieved all that he did in order that they might go back to what was now unnecessary and worse, pointless. Rather, he has purified their consciences, with regard to their standing in him. And he has done this that they might serve God, that they might live for God, not as those who are yet in need of further pardon, but as those who have been fully pardoned and, as a result, who are now free to serve God from that perspective, with the motivation that comes from the knowledge of an accomplished redemption and a sure standing with God.

That is the hope that the writer of Hebrews want his readers to embrace. That is the hope that we too, must embrace.

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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