As the author of Hebrews attempted to convince his readers to remain faithful to Christ he argued the superiority of Christ to Judaism. The central argument in Hebrews 4:14-10:18 is that Jesus is a better high priest than the priests of Judaism. The superiority of Jesus' priesthood led to other liturgical conclusions. Jesus had a better ministry and he was the mediator of a better covenant according to the argument of Hebrews 8. The better covenant also led to better worship for the followers of Christ because he offered a better sacrifice than that available through Judaism. He therefore provided better access to God.
These conclusions are developed in Hebrews 9. Hebrews 9:1-10 describes the provisions for worship that were made by the old covenant. Verses 1-5 emphasize the series of barriers between the worshipper and God in the Old Testament covenant. The concept of limited or restricted access to God also appears in verses 6-10. Thus, the stage is set in Hebrews 9:1-10 to introduce the ministry of Christ, our great high priest, in the heavenly sanctuary, which is the subject of Hebrews 9:11-28.
Limited Access to God - Hebrews 9:6-10
Hebrews 9:1-5 described the tabernacle of the old covenant. Verses 4-5 mentioned the golden incense altar and the ark of the covenant that were in the Holy of Holies. The author mentioned the manna and Aaron's rod that budded and the tablets of the covenant that were in the ark of the covenant and the mercy seat lid with the cherubim of glory overshadowing it. The structure of the sentence focuses attention on the mercy seat which was the place the blood was sprinkled on the Day of Atonement. The author will not develop the meaning of the furniture, but the background of the Day of Atonement will remain on his mind as he unfolds his thought in the following verses.
Why the author speaks of the tabernacle rather than the temple has never been clearly determined. However, the principle is the same for either structure since the floor plan of the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies was the same in both the tabernacle and temple. In both, the Holy Place was used on a daily basis. Every morning and every evening the appointed priests entered the Holy Place to trim the lamps on the lamp stand and to offer incense at the incense altar (Exodus 27:20-21 and 30:7-8). Leviticus 24:5-9 also implies that fresh loaves of the bread of the presence were brought into the Holy Place every Sabbath.
As a result the author notes that the priests go into the Holy Place continually. Service in the Holy Place was not limited to the High Priest but was available to all the priests. By Jesus' time there were so many members of the priestly family who qualified to work in the Holy Place that they were divided into 24 groups (called orders) that worked two weeks per year plus the major religious festivals like Passover, Pentecost, and the Feast of Booths. Even so there were so many each week that not everyone could be used in the Holy Place. Most served in assisting in the sacrifices at the Great Altar outside the temple. Only those chosen by lot then had the privilege of serving in the daily duties in the Holy Place. Luke 1:5 notes that Zechariah (the father of John the Baptist) was of the order called Abijah and Luke 1:8 states that he was chosen by lot to perform service in the Holy Place.
Hebrews 9:7 contrasts the duties done by the various priests in the Holy Place on a continual basis with the duty of the High Priest alone in the Holy of Holies performed only once a year. The once a year entrance into the Holy of Holies by the High Priest was on the Day of Atonement. This was the tenth day of the seventh month of the Jewish calendar which placed it near the end of September. Instead of the regular blue/violet high priest's robe (described in Exodus 28:31-35) the high priest was to wear a special white linen garment.
He would enter the inner sanctuary twice. The first time he would carry the blood of a bull that had been sacrificed for him and his family and would sprinkle it before the mercy seat. After a goat had been sacrificed the high priest would return to the Holy of Holies with the blood of the goat to sprinkle on and before the mercy seat for the sins of the people. Upon leaving the Holy of Holies the second time the high priest would lay his hands on the head of a second goat and confess the sins of the nation over that goat. The second goat would then be driven out of the camp to symbolize the departure of sin from the camp of Israel. The author of Hebrews makes no use of the fact that two goats were involved in the Day of Atonement ritual. Second century Christian writers tried to explain the relationship of the scapegoat to Christ, but the New Testament does not develop (or even make) the comparison.
The blood that was carried into the Holy of Holies by the high priest was to atone for himself and for the sins committed unintentionally (or in ignorance) by the people. By mentioning the sins committed unintentionally the author is accurately preserving a distinction made in the laws of Exodus and Leviticus. It was only sins committed unintentionally or unwittingly that could be atoned. Sin "with a high hand," that is sin that intentionally and rebelliously rejected the authority of God had no provision for atonement. Since referring to sins committed unintentionally was a historically accurate use of the Old Testament, the author may have had a further purpose in his technically correct language. Atonement for sins committed unintentionally was available both via the old covenant and from Christ. The sin of rejecting Christ to return to Judaism - though tempting to the original readers - would be a "sin with a high hand." It would be purposeful rejection of the Messiah God provided. Surely there could be no atonement for such a sin.
The author of Hebrews also wanted to point out that access into the throne room of God, the Holy of Holies where his presence was most fully known, was off-limits to all Israelites except the high priest. Even the high priest could only enter once a year and had to be protected from the wrath of God by the sprinkled blood. The author also wants the repeated nature of the entrance into the Holy of Holies and of the sacrifice of atonement to be noted. He will later make use of those features in contrast to Christ who offered a sacrifice that never needed to be repeated.
Both the layout of the tabernacle and the required offerings teach a lesson shown by the Holy Spirit according to verse 8. The reference to the Holy Spirit includes the concept that the Old Testament passages describing the tabernacle and the sacrificial requirements were inspired by the Holy Spirit.
However, the use of the present tense participle (showing) affirms the confidence of the author that the Old Testament account had a contemporary relevance in his (and our) day. That contemporary relevance was expressed in the rest of the verse: as long as the first tabernacle is still standing the way into the Most Holy Place has not yet been revealed. It appears that the author means that the way into the heavenly or real Most Holy Place was not revealed until Christ opened up that way. The reference to the first tabernacle still standing is sometimes taken to mean while the temple was still in existence. However, Hebrews 9:2 and 6 had used the term "first tabernacle" for the front compartment, the Holy Place.
The author appears to be saying that as long as the front compartment of the tabernacle/temple existed the way into the Holy of Holies on earth and into the true Holy of Holies in heaven was not and could not be revealed. The people could only approach God by means of the priests and high priest functioning as their representatives. In fact, as Lane (p. 118) notes, "The Levitical arrangement expressed in the tabernacle was actually a barrier to the presence of God."
Verses 9-10 form the transition to the next section. The preceding verses described the provisions for worship under the old covenant. No application of the meaning of Christ's priesthood was made. That will be the primary purpose of Hebrews 9:11-28, but verses 9-10 set the stage for that application. The provisions for worship given by the old covenant were also symbolic that such gifts and sacrifices cannot perfect the conscience of the worshipper. The author of Hebrews used the word conscience in a way that is different from modern connotations. The role of conscience for the author of Hebrews is not to distinguish between right and wrong, but to remember the sins that would separate the worshipper from God.
Though the Day of Atonement sacrifices provided temporary comfort for the conscience stricken by sin, it had no lasting remedy. A sacrifice that had to be repeated at periodic intervals could not satisfactorily purify a conscience that remembered the sin that separated one from God. Since the Day of Atonement arrangements provided only temporary help they were on a plane with matters of food and drink and various baptisms, regulations for the body. As such these arrangements were only temporary until the time to set things right would come.
The Achievement of Christ - Hebrews 9:11-14
Hebrews 9:11-14 functions primarily as a transition to Hebrews 9:15-28. Those verses will describe Jesus as the mediator of a new covenant and will answer the question, "Why did Christ have to die?" Verses 11-14 will show how Christ's death has created a totally new and different situation from that outline in Hebrews 9:1-10. The real achievement of Christ's death is access to God, the very thing lacking under the old covenant.
The first verb of verse 11 is present tense indicating the contrast between the provisions of the old covenant and the new situation that is now present because of Christ. The correct wording of verse 11 is debated because of differences in the various manuscripts of the book of Hebrews. Many manuscripts state that Christ is the high priest of the good things that are to come. The King James Version follows these manuscripts when it translates, "good things to come." If this reading is adopted the good things provided by Christ will be in the future.
However, other, better manuscripts read that Christ is the high priest of the good things that have come. The point of this reading is that the good things are not future, but present. Bruce (p. 212) notes, "For Christ has appeared, and in him the shadows have given way to the perfect and abiding reality. And his appearance is properly announced with a triumphant trumpet-flourish; his entrance into the presence of God is not a day of soul-affliction and fasting, like the Day of Atonement under the old legislation, but a day of gladness and song, the day when Christians celebrate the accession of their Priest-King."
What the author of Hebrews wants to talk about here is Christ's entrance into the heavenly sanctuary. In contrast to the many high priests of the past who entered the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies repeatedly, Jesus came once for all into the Holy Place. However, this Holy Place is in the greater and perfect tent that is the heavenly sanctuary. Furthermore, though the Levitical priests brought the blood of goats and calves each Day of Atonement, Jesus has come into the heavenly Holy of Holies with his own blood. Thus Christ is both the superior priest and the superior sacrifice. Because he brings his own blood once for all that sacrifice is able to accomplish eternal redemption.
The word redemption introduced a new set of ideas in the context. The whole central section of Hebrews is built around the idea of Jesus' death providing an atoning sacrifice that secures right relationship with God. Atonement is the primary way of understanding right relationship with God in the book of Hebrews. It is used occasionally in other books of the New Testament. The word redemption, on the other hand, comes from the context of slavery and the price paid for deliverance from slavery rather than from the context of sacrifice. The Greek word translated redemption here was used to describe the procedure by which a slave might be bought out of slavery and granted freedom. In fact, the most common way that happened was for a slave to find a way to make money. Since there were no banks the money was often deposited at the local (pagan) temple for safe-keeping. When the full ransom was collected the owner was summoned, the slave's purchase price was paid, and he was set free. The Greeks then said (and wrote in the legal documentation) that the god of that temple had redeemed the slave.
Though Gentile readers would connect the word redemption to that process of a slave's acquisition of freedom at the local temple, the Jewish readers of Hebrews would have thought immediately of the use of the word redemption in the Old Testament to describe the deliverance of Israel from Egyptian bondage by the hand of God. The purchase price was never discussed in the Old Testament but the concept of freedom from slavery and of being redeemed by God were part of the Jewish way of thinking about redemption.
The advantage of thinking in terms of the Greek customs of setting a slave free is that the purchase price was the main point. Verse 12 also emphasizes the purchase price of our redemption. Our freedom from sin was bought by the blood of Christ sprinkled at the mercy seat of the heavenly sanctuary. Our Savior is not only the great high priest who atones for our sins but also the suffering servant who by the shedding of his own blood purchased freedom for all those who will follow him.
The application of verses 11-12 to Hebrews 9:9-10 takes place in verses 13-14. The blood of goats and bulls that had been mentioned in verse 12 is placed beside the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer. This is clearly a reference to the ritual of the red heifer described in Numbers 19. A red heifer without defect or blemish that had never been under yoke was to be slaughtered outside the camp and the carcass was completely burned with cedar wood, hyssop, and red thread. The ashes were to be gathered and stored to be combined with water for use in ceremonies of purification. Anyone who became defiled by contact with a dead body were to be purified by sprinkling with the water mixed with the ashes of the red heifer. A variety of other purifications could be accomplished by the use of the ashes of the red heifer. Numbers 19:9 states that the ritual of the red heifer is a sin offering. This may be the reason that the author of Hebrews mentions it in Hebrews 9:13. It is probable that the idea of the red heifer ashes for purification fit the thought of sanctification/purification that is being emphasized in verses 13-14 better than the Day of Atonement language did.
Regardless of the significance of the mention of the ashes of the red heifer, the author of Hebrews was making a comparison. He assumed that the Old Testament sacrifice sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified. The contrast is clear and powerful. The sacrifice of Christ, referred to here as blood of Christ, is a once for all sacrifice compared to the repeated sacrifices of the goats, bulls, and red heifers. The Levitical system purified the flesh; the sacrifice of Christ will purify our conscience. Thus the old covenant dealt with the external problem of humankind, but Christ is capable of dealing with the whole interior person as they stand before God. The blood of goats, bulls, and red heifers purified defilement that was contracted passively - simply by coming into contact with that which is impure. On the other hand, the blood of Christ purifies our conscience from dead works - the active violation of the will of God.
Finally, the sacrifices of the old covenant ended the defilement so that the Israelite could resume contact with his people and family and move freely about the camp. The sacrifice of Christ provides the degree of purification that allows the believer to worship the living God. The restoration granted by Christ not only opens up the lines of human relationship again, it restores the relationship with God himself that we were created to enjoy. Thus Christ's death provides access into the very presence of God - the very thing the tabernacle and the Old Testament sacrifices failed to deliver.
The author of Hebrews has brought together in verses 11-14 several important aspects of God's whole plan of salvation. The death of Christ is portrayed both as an atoning sacrifice for sin that restores us to fellowship with God and also as the price of redemption that buys us out of slavery both to sin and to the bondage of the inferior provisions of Judaism. Thus atonement and redemption both flow from the death of Christ. So does sanctification. The atoning death of Christ not only restores us to the position of right relationship with God; it also provides the purification that enables authentic relationship with God. The opening words of verse 14, how much more, are part of the rabbinical style of arguing from a lesser to a greater reality. But the words how much more are more than just a literary device. They powerfully proclaim the reality of the superiority of the sacrifice that Christ made to anything achieved through the Levitical system.
The Mediator of a New Covenant - Hebrews 9:15-28
Hebrews 9:15-28 bring together the concept of the new and better covenant that was developed in Hebrews 8:7-13 and the superior sacrifice of Christ argued in Hebrews 9:1-14. Verse 15 affirms that Christ is the mediator of a new covenant. Verses 16-22 are seen by some as parenthetical because they attempt to explain why it was necessary for Christ to die. Finally, verses 23-28 sum up the high priestly ministry that is exercised by Christ as a result of having offered the perfect sacrifice.
The writer of Hebrews asserts in verse 15 that Christ's death inaugurated a new covenant. The result of the new covenant is that the participants (those who are called) may actually enjoy the benefits (the promised eternal inheritance). This takes place because a death that redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant has occurred. The language of verse 15 is very compressed but the author seems to be saying that the penalty for transgressing the old covenant was death. However, Jesus' death meets the demand of the old covenant for death to pay for trespasses. Thus Jesus' death is a representative death and provides satisfaction to the covenant. Thus the participants who deserve death do not have to die but are able to enjoy the benefits of the covenant. Such an adjustment of covenant terms must be called a new covenant.
Verse 15 alludes to what happened as a result of the death of Christ. It does not answer why that death was necessary. Verses 16-22 attempt to provide that answer. Verses 16-17 are difficult to understand, in part, because it is not clear whether the author is using a pun on the Greek word for covenant or referring back to the ancient Semitic practice of covenant making. Scholars are divided on which is the more likely interpretation.
The Greek word that has been translated covenant is diatheke. This word normally means a will or last testament. However, the New Testament authors all use it to refer to the covenant relationship between God and Israel defined in the Old Testament. The author of Hebrews uses the word diatheke in verses 16-17. Some scholars believe he is moving back and forth between the meaning of will or testament and the meaning of covenant. A will or testament does not become effective until the one making the will dies. The same was not true of the covenant of the Old Testament, but if the author can move freely back and forth between covenant and will or testament, then the death that is necessary for a will to go into effective will be necessary for a new covenant to go into effect. Thus the death of Christ is necessary in order for the new covenant to be finally put in place. English translations struggle in various ways to get both ideas of will or testament and covenant into the translation.
Some scholars believe that the ancient Semitic practice of making a covenant was in the author's mind. Ancient Semites ratified a covenant by splitting the carcass of an animal and concluding the covenant terms between the two halves. Genesis 15:9-21 describes such an event. Obviously the death of the animal cut into two for the covenant is necessary for the covenant to go into effect. If that practice was on the author's mind the conclusion is the same: Christ's death was necessary to institute the new covenant. The appeal to the sprinkling of the scroll, the people, the tabernacle, and the vessels that is made in verses 19-22 fits best with the background of the ancient Semitic covenant practices.
The conclusion in verse 22 that without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins should not be understood to give blood some magical power even for God. In the Bible blood stands for life. What the author means is that the forgiveness of sins is costly. It costs the highest price that can be humanly imagined, life itself. Because forgiveness is so valuable and so costly God could not short cut the path to forgiveness. He, too, gave the most valuable possession he had, the life of his own son to show us the depth of his love when he forgives our sins.
Verses 23-28 return to the themes developed in Hebrews 9:1-14. Jesus has entered the heavenly sanctuary. His death is a once for all atoning sacrifice for our sin. However, he will leave that heavenly sanctuary to come again. But at his second coming he will not deal with the sin problem; he will save those who are eagerly waiting for his arrival. "Even so, come, Lord Jesus." (Rev. 22:21)
Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion
These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.
As you begin each day pray that the Lord would speak to you through his Holy Spirit as you open yourself to his word.
First Day: Read the notes on Hebrews 9:6-28. Look up the Scripture references given there.
1. Note and jot down one or two new thoughts that seemed important to you. Why were they important?
2. Select one or two spiritual insights that would apply to your own life. How do they apply in your life?
3. Write a brief prayer asking the Lord to purify your conscience so that you can worthily worship him.
Second Day: Read Hebrews 9:23-10:10. Now focus in on Hebrews 10:1-4.
1. In what ways do the focus verses show the inadequacy of the law?
2. Why does the author believe that it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins?
3. Do you think that animal sacrifice can effectively deal with sin? If so, why? If not, why did God command it in the Old Testament?
Third Day: Read Hebrews 9:23-10:10. Focus in on Hebrews 10:5-10.
1. Read Psalm 40:5-7 and compare it with Hebrews 10:5-7. What are the similarities and what are the differences between the two passages?
2. Read all of Psalm 40. What themes or concepts in verses 6-8 can be found in the rest of Psalm 40? Where?
3. Read Psalms 50:8-14 and 51:16-17; Amos 5:21-24, and Hosea 6:6. What do these verses say about how God felt about sacrifice in the Old Testament?
Fourth Day: Read Hebrews 10:1-18. Now focus again on Hebrews 10:5-10.
1. How does the quotation of Psalm 40:6-8 in Hebrews 10:5-7 fit into the whole flow of thought in Hebrews 10:1-10?
2. What connection does the author make between the will of God and our sanctification?
3. What relationship(s) do you see between the will of God and sanctification? Are those relationships true in your own life? On the basis of your answer, how would you like to respond to God right now?
Fifth Day: Read Hebrews 10:1-18. Focus on Hebrews 10:11-14.
1. What does the author see as evidence of the effectiveness of Christ's death as a single sacrifice?
2. Verse 11 speaks of priests offering the same sacrifice again and again without any effect. Is there anything in your spiritual life that you try again and again without results? What do you need according to these focus verses?
3. How do you believe verse 14 applies to you? What do you need to do to let that verse become more completely fulfilled in your life?
Sixth Day: Read Hebrews 10:1-18. Now turn your focus to Hebrews 10:15-18.
1. What two major blessings of the new covenant are mentioned in verses 16-17?
2. Has God written his laws in your heart and on your mind? What "laws" of God would you like to have most deeply inscribed in your heart and on your mind? Why?
3. Write a prayer asking God to remember your sins no more and thanking him for the forgiveness you have in Christ.