The bulk of today’s reading deals with the Jesus’s ministry as the heavenly High Priest being far superior to that of the earthly high priests. The first two verses of chapter eight are a transition from the discussion in chapter seven. The main point is that the author is referring back to the appointment of Jesus as the superior High Priest. He ministers not in an earthly tabernacle but in the heavenly one. This serves to anticipate the theme of Jesus’ superior offering. Unlike the Levitical priests who served in an earthly structure, Jesus’ sacrifice is superior because He serves in the true place of worship, the very presence of God in heaven. Making offerings is one of the basic duties of priests. Since Jesus was also a priest He too had to offer a sacrifice. Under the old order Jesus would not even be a priest because He was not from the tribe of Levi. But, Jesus is in heaven which makes His priestly service different and distinct from the Levitical priests. It also makes it superior to the priests of the old covenant. Here is the big difference. Not only is Jesus serving in the heavenly tabernacle but He serves from the new covenant, not the old. The author of Hebrews also points out that the earthly place of worship was a mere shadow, an imitation of the heavenly place of worship. This is why God wanted Moses to follow His instructions explicitly. Judaism and early Christianity both spoke of a heavenly tabernacle within a heavenly Jerusalem which would come down to earth at the end of the age. Hebrews suggests that this heavenly place of worship was shown to Moses so that he would know how to build the earthly tabernacle. Jesus did not serve in this tabernacle. He only serves in the heavenly tabernacle where He ministers as the High Priest. Jesus is the one who mediates for us. A mediator works between two parties to bring them to an agreement. Jesus’ sacrificial work established the covenant relationship between people and God. This new covenant is a far better covenant than the old because it is based on better promises.
The rest of the chapter is a quote from Jeremiah 31:31-34. This is the Old Testament prophecy concerning the new covenant that includes quite a few striking promises. What we see is that Jesus’ offering under the new covenant is far superior to the offerings of the old. The first covenant was made between God and the Israelites at Mount Sinai. It was not faultless and it was not the end of God’s plan for His people. And, it didn’t solve human weakness. Because the people were not able to keep the terms of the old covenant, God made a new one. This covenant was not dependent on any human action other than believing in the Lord. There is history in these verses. God made a covenant with the Israelites ancestors at Sinai. He went so far as to take them by the hand to bring them out of slavery in Egypt. He led them as a parent would a child who could not fend for themselves. The people were not faithful even though God was. As a result, God turned His back on them. His covenant warned them that if they turned away from Him, He would turn away from them. Under the old covenant the people were commanded to take the words of the law to heart. The kings of both Judah and Israel were judged on whether or not they followed the law of God wholeheartedly. The difference in the new covenant was that God’s laws would not only be in people’s minds but also on their hearts. People would have renewed hearts and minds and God’s law provided internal motivation. All those in the new covenant know the Lord. They have an intimate personal relationship with Him which is the very nature of the new covenant. A final characteristic of the new covenant is that God would forgive their wickedness and never again remember their sins. The blood of Jesus cleanses His people completely from their sins. The word “new” in new covenant emphasizes that once God had enacted this covenant the Sinai covenant was considered old or obsolete and as such was out of date. It’s time of usefulness was over and it’s termination was imminent.
Chapter nine is all about the old covenant and how Christ’s death, the sacrifice of the new covenant is superior to the sacrifices in the old. The first ten verses describe the aspects of worship under the regulations of the old covenant. These are then contrasted with Christ’s superior offering. The author begins with a description of the tabernacle, Israel’s place of worship. We have seen this before, all the way back in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. The tabernacle was the place of worship as the Israelites wandered in the wilderness, before the temple was built. The author named every piece of furniture in the tabernacle plus the spaces there. The priests worked in the Holy Place as a part of their daily ritual duties. But once a year the high priest went into the Holy of Holies to make atonement for the forgiveness of the people’s sins. This was the most sacred place, the home of the ark of the covenant and the earthly place God dwelled. It is here that we discover that the ark of the covenant had the gold jar containing manna, a reminder of God’s provision in the wilderness. Aaron’s staff that had budded was also in the ark as a reminder to not rebel against God’s chosen leaders. And the stone tablets that had the Ten Commandments carved into them. This was a reminder for the people that they were called to live by the terms of the covenant. The cherubim of divine glory were statues of the cherubim that were formed into the cover of the ark of the covenant. These angels are especially associated with God’s glorious presence. The Arks cover was the actual place of atonement on which the blood from the Day of Atonement was to be sprinkled. The main focus here was to be the offering of sacrifices under the old covenant.
Worship practices in the Holy place, the first room of the tabernacle were the duty of the priests who kept the lamps lit and the sacred loaves of bread replenished. These tasks happened regularly. The Day of Atonement happened once a year. Under the old covenant the entrance into the presence of God was limited to the high priest, and only once a year. The outer room of the tabernacle served as a sacred barrier keeping the people from the presence of God in the most Holy place. This was symbolic of the old covenant system. Under this system the people where kept out of God’s presence rather than being led into it. The problem with the gifts and sacrifices under the old covenant was that they were not able to cleanse the consciences of the people. They could not remove the people’s guilt before a Holy God. The old system dealt only with physical regulations, not the condition the heart. So this was only provisional. It was only intended to last until Christ could come and establish better system.
From 9:11-10:18 the author contrasts the old system with the superior sacrifice made by Christ as High Priest. The blood of His offering was His own blood, not the blood of animals. Christ’s offering was made in the heavenly tabernacle, not the earthly one, and His offering, rather than being made continually, was made just one time. Christ has been made the High Priest over all the good things of the new covenant. He was appointed by God in accord with Psalm 110:4 and offered a superior offering. His sacrifice was superior because of where it was made, in the greater heavenly tabernacle. Christ’s offering was superior because it was made with His own blood instead of the blood of goats, lambs, and calves. And it is superior because He entered the Most Holy Place once for all time. Unlike the sacrifices in the old covenant, which had to be made year after year, Jesus’s sacrificial death only had to be made once and it was decisive in securing our redemption forever. The ashes from the heifer were used with water to cleanse people’s bodies from ceremonial impurity.
The author contrasts the old and new here. This is an argument from lesser to greater, a traditional Jewish rhetorical strategy. The logic in this is that if something is true in a lesser situation, it will be even more true in a greater situation. For instance, if the blood of animals had some cleansing effect then the blood of Christ will be much more effective. Christ’s sacrifice, unlike the sacrifices of the old covenant, removes the guilt that keeps us from God by decisively cleansing us from our sinful deeds. Under the old covenant Moses and the angels were understood to be the mediators between God and the people. In the new covenant Christ takes on that role, mediating between God and people through His sacrificial death and ongoing intercession. Exodus 24:3-8 records Moses’ inauguration of the old covenant with the blood of the sacrifice. Hebrews alone among ancient sources states that Moses sprinkled the book of God’s law. Hyssop branches have blue flowers and very strong aromatic leaves. They were used with sacrifices for cleansing. Moses said “this blood confirms the covenant God has made with you.” Jesus used similar language at the Lord’s Supper, referring to His own death. Most of the rituals of cleansing in the law of Moses involved the death of a sacrificial animal. Blood was involved both in the rites of cleansing and in making atonement. But the shedding of Christ’s blood established the new covenant, providing permanent purification and complete forgiveness of sins. Verse 23 also argues from lesser to greater. Just as heaven is greater than the earthly tabernacle and temple, so Christ’s sacrifice had to be far greater than the earthly sacrifices. And, just as the tabernacle had to be cleansed because of the sin of the Israelites, the heavenly tabernacle required that the uncleanness was to be removed from those who would enter heaven under the new covenant. Under the new covenant, Christ did not offer his sacrifice in the earthly tabernacle. Instead he entered into the very presence of God in heaven to act on our behalf. His sacrifice made Him a much better mediator to bring us into a right relationship with God. Christ’s one time sacrifice was permanently effective. Since Christ is both the sacrifice and the High Priest, if His offerings were made every year as with the earthly high priests, Jesus would have had to die again and again. Christ’s first coming was to take away all the sins of many people. When He comes again, it will not be to deal with sins because that has already happened. Instead, He will bring salvation to all who are eagerly waiting for Him.
The old system under the law of Moses, like the tabernacle itself, was only a shadow, a dim preview of a much greater reality. This would be the good things that Christ inaugurated in the new covenant. The perpetual nature of the sacrifices demonstrated their inadequacy. If the sacrifices had offered a true, lasting purity they would have stopped and the feelings of guilt would have disappeared. But instead of removing guilt, the ongoing sacrifices actually reminded those who wished to come near God, year after year, that they were guilty before God. The blood offered in sacrifice under the old covenant could not take away sins or even begin to eradicate them in a way that would offer permanent cleansing. Chapter 10:6-7 quotes Psalm 40:6-8. This Psalm is a hymn of praise to God in which the psalmist confesses his desire to do God’s will. The author of Hebrews understands Christ to be the speaker here. God had prepared the psalmist to be obedient, ready to do God’s will and now Hebrews applies this to Christ. For Hebrews, the preparation of a human body, specifically Christ’s body, shows that God would use it as a superior sacrifice. This is the author’s flow of thought here in verses 8-10. First Christ said you did not want animal sacrifices. The author understands this as God’s rejection of the old system of sacrifices. Then He said, I have come to do your will. And the author of Hebrews takes this to be Christ’s willingness to be the supreme sacrifice for sins. The author concludes that because of Christ’s sacrifice, God has canceled the old covenant. God’s will was that Christ would die for sins as a sacrifice and this only had to be done once. Yes, there is a lot of repetition here on the part of the author of Hebrews. Christ’s superior offering was decisive. Christ’s sacrifice contrasts with that of the earthly high priest in that Christ offered Himself up as a sacrifice. And once that was accomplished He sat down in the place of honor. Instead of standing daily like the priests of the old covenant, He waited until His enemies are humbled and made a footstool under His feet. In Christ we have complete purification from sins.
Again the author quoted from Jeremiah 31:31-34 to support their statement that Christ’s one offering under the new covenant has made worshipers perfect forever. God’s laws have now been placed in people hearts and minds and God will no longer remember the people’s sins. This is the reality of the new covenant. The author’s logical conclusion is that when sins have been forgiven, when they have been taken away completely and permanently, there is no more need for any sacrifices. So, the author concluded that the superior sacrifice of Christ had made the entire sacrificial system of the old covenant obsolete. Chapter ten contains a lot of repetition concerning Jesus superior offering and His once and for all sacrifice. We know that under the old covenant the most Holy Place was off limits to all but the high priest. We also know that when Jesus gave up His spirit on the cross and cried out it is finished, the curtain in the Jerusalem temple that separated God from His people was torn in two, from top to bottom. This curtain was sixty feet tall and four inches thick. Only one person could tear this in half. When the curtain was torn God’s people suddenly had full access to Him. Jesus made a way for the people to come into the presence of Holy God. Under this new covenant believers have transformed hearts. Christ’s work on our behalf gives us confidence that God will welcome us into His presence. Our guilty consciences have been sprinkled and our bodies have been washed. Christ’s sacrificial death had provided complete cleansing from sin. When this happens, acts of love and good works characterize true Christian commitment.
It seems that in an attempt to avoid persecution, some in the community of the Hebrews were neglecting to meet together in regular worship. But when believers are together that is when we can encourage one another. Gathering together can motivate us to perform good works. All of this is in preparation for Christ’s second coming. Again we see the author of Hebrews warning the people then and now that there is great danger in rejecting God’s Son and His authoritative word. Openly sinning against God’s laws was described as “sinning with a high hand.” The author seems to have in mind here a rejection of Christ and His work. And if a person rejects the Son’s sacrifice, there is no other sacrifice. There is no where else to go for forgiveness. Anyone who rejects Christ can only expect judgement as one of God’s enemies. In verses 28-29 the author once again moves from lesser to greater. The old punishment for a person who refused to obey the law of Moses was death. But the greater concern here is for the one who rejects Christ and treats Him with contempt. Now the punishment is much worse; eternal damnation. God will judge His own people and once God moves to do that, no one can rescue them out of His hand. The warning is harsh but the author follows this up with a word of encouragement. The author reminds the readers of the early days, shortly after the community embraced Christianity when their faith was tested. At that time they remained faithful in the face of terrible suffering. But suffering was normal for a person who identified with Christ and his community. Believers were insulted and disgraced. They were physically abused and sometimes they stood with others who were suffering. Some of those folks had been tossed into jail. Some had been evicted from their homes and were left with nothing. They had even been forced to leave the city. But these Christians had faced this kind of persecution in the past and had accepted it with joy. Now they could anticipate better things that will last forever. God has promised to reward those who faithfully persevere. Based on this the author urges them not to throw away their confident trust in the Lord. The word for confident trust here is the same word used in Hebrews for boldly entering the presence of God. Patient endurance is the key response needed in the face of persecution. Verses 37-38 quote Habakkuk 2:3-4 that contrast the righteous and the wicked as they face God’s judgement. The author ends this section with a statement of confidence in their hearers.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W