In his letter to Jewish Christians, the Hebrew writer is trying to encourage these brethren to remain faithful to Christ and not return to their former religion. He does this by demonstrating how Jesus is superior to every element of that faith. In the last section we looked at he explained that Jesus was not only superior to Aaron, the original high priest of Judaism, but that His ministry to the people was superior as well. For example:
- Jesus ministers in heaven (the true sanctuary) while they ministered on earth.
- He ministers according to a new covenant (promise) which has better features: it would be inward and spiritual (individual hearts would be changed) not just outward religious practice; it would be personal and universal (everyone would have access to God) not just the special ministers like priests and Levites; it would deal effectively with sin (not a covenant to help remember sin, but one to free people from the guilt of sin forever).
In the final chapter and a half of this first part of his letter, the author will continue building on this theme (the superiority of Jesus' ministry) by establishing two final ideas:
- Jesus' work (ministry/sacrifice) is done in a better place, by a better covenant and is thus superior.
- The results of Jesus' ministry on our behalf are superior than the results of the ministry performed by the Aaronic priests on behalf of the Jewish people.
These two ideas are not presented one after another but are intertwined throughout this section.
The Tabernacle Ritual - Hebrews 9:1-5
The author begins by reviewing the worship elements in the "Tabernacle" serviced by the Old Testament priests during the Jewish people's wanderings in the desert.
1 Now even the first covenant had regulations of divine worship and the earthly sanctuary. 2 For there was a tabernacle prepared, the outer one, in which were the lampstand and the table and the sacred bread; this is called the holy place. 3 Behind the second veil there was a tabernacle which is called the Holy of Holies, 4 having a golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, in which was a golden jar holding the manna, and Aaron's rod which budded, and the tables of the covenant; 5 and above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat; but of these things we cannot now speak in detail.
The only source of light inside the two-room tabernacle was a lampstand situated against the southern wall. The showbread, located on the northern wall, was always set before the Lord. There were twelve loaves (one per tribe) baked fresh every Sabbath. The old loaves were eaten by the priests.
The Holy of Holies was a smaller inner room that had only two pieces of furniture: an altar of incense which may have been placed directly in front of the veil in the outer compartment so that the smoke of the burning incense entered into the Holy of Holies when burned there, and the Ark of the Covenant which was a box covered in gold measuring four and a half feet long and two and a half feet wide as well as high. It contained Aaron's rod (which had miraculously budded) and a jar of manna, both of which were lost with time. It also contained the tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments. These were still in the ark when Solomon built the temple in Jerusalem (I Kings 8:9) several hundred years later.
The Ark was covered by a lid decorated with two angels facing each other. This was called the "mercy-seat" because it was here that the high priest sprinkled the blood of sacrifice on the Day of Atonement. This was done once per year and signified a temporary (needed to be done each year) reconciliation between God and His people.
The Work of the Priests - Hebrews 9:6-10
6 Now when these things have been so prepared, the priests are continually entering the outer tabernacle performing the divine worship, 7 but into the second, only the high priest enters once a year, not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the sins of the people committed in ignorance. 8 The Holy Spirit is signifying this, that the way into the holy place has not yet been disclosed while the outer tabernacle is still standing, 9 which is a symbol for the present time. Accordingly both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make the worshiper perfect in conscience, 10 since they relate only to food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until a time of reformation.
At this point the author goes on to describe the type of work and ministry that the high priests did in these surroundings.
The priests went into the outer compartment every day to trim the lamp (morning and evening), offer incense (morning and evening) and replace the showbread each Sabbath day. In addition to these duties there was the daily offering of sacrifices using animals, produce, oil and wine etc. Once per year (Day of Atonement), however, the high priest would enter the inner sanctuary (Holy of Holies). He would first offer incense and then offer the blood of a sacrificed animal for his own sins. Only after this was done would he offer the blood of another sacrifice for the sins of the people.
The author says that the significance of this type of ministry was to demonstrate that man could not come near to God. It was a continual testimony through ritual that the way to God was blocked. The tabernacle's design and restricted access represented how separated the people were from God.
The complex external rituals had the ability to remove ceremonial uncleanliness (i.e. if a Jew became unclean ceremonially he could not participate in corporate worship or social interaction - becoming "clean" again required the offering of a sacrifice and a series of other rituals - Leviticus 5:1-5; 16:16-22; 21:18-21), but they could not clean the conscience. This type of cleansing, the author said, would only be done at the time of "reformation." Reformation was a reference to the coming of the Messiah, Jesus.
Jesus' Ministry Described - Hebrews 9:11-22
At this point the writer moves forward to describe Jesus' ministry as High Priest.
The Effectiveness of His Sacrifice
11 But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; 12 and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption.
Jesus ministers in the same way as the other high priests, by offering sacrifice for sin, however:
- He offers sacrifice in the heavenly sanctuary, not the earthly one.
- He offers His own perfect, eternal life for the sins of men, not that of dead animals.
- He makes a more valuable payment (perfect, eternal sacrifice) and thus obtains a more valuable outcome (eternal redemption), not just ceremonial cleansing or an annual reprieve for sin.
13 For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled, sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?
Here the author compares the two sacrifices in a positive way. He agrees that according to the Law, animal sacrifice was effective to render acceptable before God those who had violated some aspects of the external rituals of their religion. For example, one who had come into contact with a corpse was considered unclean and not allowed to participate in collective religious activity. However, if a purification rite was performed with the blood of an animal, this person was restored to the fellowship of his brothers. The point was this: if the blood (life) of an animal would accomplish this, imagine what the sacrifice of the Son of God could do? It would not simply remove a charge for breaking ceremonial law, but also the guilt and fear resulting from breaking God's eternal spiritual laws. The implIcation was that once cleansed by this sacrifice, the individual was free from condemnation, guilt and fear, and free to serve God with a spirit of enthusiasm, not one of slavery. Here is where the sacrifice of Christ proved its effectiveness: in the change that it created in the heart of a sinner.
The Reason for His Sacrifice
The author has made the case for Jesus' superior ministry by demonstrating that where He ministers (heaven) and what He does in ministering (redeems/saves) is far better than what the ministry of the Jewish priests accomplished; and this should be the climax of his argument. However, he has one more point to make for his readers because they are Jews, and that is to answer the question, "Why did Jesus have to die?" For Jews, the death of the Messiah was a great obstacle to faith in Jesus. If He was the Messiah promised in Scripture, why should He have to die? After all, they reasoned, "He came to save the people, not to be killed Himself." In answer to this question, the author gives two reasons for Jesus' death on the cross:
15 And for this reason He is the mediator of a new covenant, in order that since a death has taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were committed under the first covenant, those who have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance.
- A sacrifice for sin requires death. This is an unbreakable spiritual law very much like "gravity" is a physical law. The penalty for sin is death, and in order to redeem (buy back) men's souls, Jesus had to pay with His life. Now, the fact that He was a divine (eternal) being as well as a human being meant that the sacrifice of His life purchased not only the forgiveness of sins on the day it was offered (like animals), but also obtained forgiveness for all time. The eternal nature of His life produced a sacrifice for sin that was eternal in nature as well. This is why, in explaining the power of Jesus' cross, many say that it goes back in time to the beginning in order to forgive the sins of Adam, and also forward to the end of time forgiving the sins of the last man alive when He will return at the end of the world. This is the first reason why Jesus is the mediator (go between) of the new covenant (promise) that God has with man - only Jesus has a perfect, eternal life to offer in order to accomplish this forgiveness for all men and for all time. He offers a one-time sacrifice. This sacrifice is what pays for our forgiveness and the eternal life that this forgiveness permits. These blessings are referred to as an "inheritance" reserved for those who are called. The author uses two meanings for this word: Covenant - a promise to do something; Will - a testament or will after one's death. We are called by the gospel to come and obtain our inheritance prepared by God and paid for by the sacrifice of Jesus.
- This bring us to the second reason for His death. In order for a will to be executed and the people to receive their "inheritance" there needs to be the death of the principal party. In verses 16-21 the Hebrew writer says that it was necessary for Jesus to die because without His death, the will or testament that grants us our inheritance would not come into effect.
16For where a covenant is, there must of necessity be the death of the one who made it. 17For a covenant is valid only when men are dead, for it is never in force while the one who made it lives. 18Therefore even the first covenant was not inaugurated without blood. 19For when every commandment had been spoken by Moses to all the people according to the Law, he took the blood of the calves and the goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, 20saying, "THIS IS THE BLOOD OF THE COVENANT WHICH GOD COMMANDED YOU." 21And in the same way he sprinkled both the tabernacle and all the vessels of the ministry with the blood.
He demonstrates that even the first covenant (Old Testament) was put into effect when animal sacrifices were made and the actual external elements of the Jewish faith (tablets, tables, sanctuary, etc.) were sprinkled with its blood (Exodus 40:9-15; Leviticus 8). So too with the new covenant. He summarizes his argument by saying that there is no cleansing or forgiving without the shedding of blood (offering of life). In the Old Testament they did it with animals; now, Jesus had done it also with His own life, this is why He had to die. He was the Messiah, but God's plan was that the Savior would save by offering His life as sacrifice.
The Superiority of His Sacrifice - Hebrews 9:23-28
23 Therefore it was necessary for the copies of the things in the heavens to be cleansed with these, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ did not enter a holy place made with hands, a mere copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us;
The tabernacle and religious objects were purified with an animal sacrifice. However, Jesus who entered the true tabernacle (where God is in heaven), needed to come with a better sacrifice. The earthly temple demanded earthly sacrifices and the heavenly temple required a sacrifice of a spiritual nature like Christ's.
25 nor was it that He should offer Himself often, as the high priest enters the holy place year by year with blood not his own. 26 Otherwise, He would have needed to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now once at the consummation of the ages He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.
The priests offered numerous sacrifices of animals given to them by the people over the centuries, but now, at the appointed time, Christ has offered Himself, done once for all time. Jesus does not repeatedly go in and out of the temple to do His priestly duties. His service is done one time and He remains in the sanctuary to prepare a place within it for those who follow Him, things that the Jewish priests could not and were never called upon to do.
27 And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment, 28so Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, shall appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him.
All men die once (according to God's plan) and then are judged. Jesus, as a man, also died only once, but His death was not on account of sin (Romans 6:23). His death was as a sacrifice for sin. All men will return to be judged after their death. Jesus, as God's Son, will also return, but not in connection with sin (this He dealt with at the cross). When He returns next time it will be to gather those who have faithfully followed Him, and bring these to heaven to be with God eternally.
- In this section the writer of Hebrews compares Jesus' work/ministry with that of the Old Testament priests: Jesus offers His sacrifice in heaven, they on earth; His sacrifice is eternal, theirs temporal; His sacrifice removes the guilt of sin, theirs only ritual impurity, and as a reminder of sin.
- The author also gives two reasons why the Messiah had to die: sin is paid for by offering a sacrifice, and sacrifice can only be offered through death, thus Jesus' sacrifice of Himself required His death; and the promises contained in the covenant/will/inheritance prepared by God for us required a death in order to put it into effect.
- He summarizes Jesus' superior ministry: He offers a better sacrifice in a better place; He offers a one-time sacrifice for all sin; and He will return, not to be judged like the Jewish priests (as humans), but (as the Messiah) to gather the saved to heaven.
There is no other religion where God reveals such a clear plan of salvation in a historical context. God's actions and purposes are seen from the beginning (creation), to the completion of His will (the cross and resurrection), to a preview of the end of time (Jesus' return for judgment and reward). And, no other religion reveals our role as believers so clearly as well: believe and remain faithful to Christ to the end.
We need to remember that our lives are not about cars or computers, health, taxes, even homes and families. Our lives are about faith and how faith works itself out against the backdrop of these other things. The "big" picture is always about us being faithful in good or bad times. The Hebrew writer is trying to give his readers the support they need in order to keep the bigger picture in focus by regaining the faith that they were losing.