We have never seen this heavenly sanctuary that the writer of Hebrews speaks about. For that matter, we have not seen the earthly tabernacle either. One thing that I like about the Holy Land Experience in Orlando was the life size replica of the tabernacle. It gives a great visualization of the earthly tabernacle where the sacrifices were made. But Solomon, Stephen, and the apostles pointed out that God did not actually live in the tabernacle. It is not possible for God to live in anything that is made by human hands. But it was symbolic that God was with his people and they were in a relationship with him. Hence, when the people were disobedient, God left the temple, cutting off his people from having a relationship with him. Even when the temple was reconstructed after the captive by Zerubabel and expanded by Herod, God did not dwell in that temple. Josephus records that the Holy of Holies was empty after the Babylonian exile. Though the temple stood, the house was left desolate (Matthew 23:38). God was not in a relationship with his people.
The Insufficient Earthly Tabernacle (9:1-10)
The writer begins this section by taking us on a tour of the tabernacle. Remember that the writer concluded with the thought that the first covenant was obsolete, growing old, and ready to vanish away. Yet this was written in a progressive tense, even though the new covenant had been put into effect. The reason seems to be that the first covenant system and Levitical priesthood were still in effect while Herod’s temple stood. The writer is going to tell us more about the need for the first tabernacle to vanish away.
The first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly sanctuary. These regulations and practices were commanded by God. God had established these things. But we learned that the fault was with the people for not keeping God’s laws. Therefore, the tabernacle and the first covenant became insufficient. But this was God’s plan. Let us notice the five things that the writer of Hebrews reveals was insufficient about the earthly tabernacle.
(1) Human made (1-2). The first reason that the earthly tabernacle is insufficient is because it was constructed by humans. This is implied in verses 1-2 with the words “an earthly place of holiness” (ESV) and “a tent was prepared.” The tabernacle was built by Moses and the priests, not by God. This point is explicitly stated in verse 11, “not made with hands, that is, not of this creation.” Being of this earth and being made by humans make it insufficient and inferior to the heavenly tabernacle.
(2) Symbolized something greater (2-5). The writer lists all of the articles in the tabernacle. But in verse 23 we are told that these articles were simply copies of the heavenly things. These things symbolized a greater fulfillment to come. I believe the writer of Hebrews is declaring that Jesus is the fulfillment of these copies and shadows (verse 24).
- Lampstand. The writer tells us that inside the earthly tabernacle was the lampstand. Jesus is the true light of the world (John 8:12) and those who are in his family are also to lights (Matthew 5:14-16; Philippians 2:14-15).
- Table of showbread. Each Sabbath the priest would remove the old loaves and put fresh loaves on the table. The old loaves were eaten by the priests and these loaves were called “the bread of presence.” Only the priests could eat the bread and it could only be eaten within the tabernacle. Jesus called himself the bread of life who is given to the whole world (John 6). This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:50-51)
- Altar of incense. The golden altar stood in the holy place just in front of the veil that divided the Holy of Holies from the Holy Place in the tabernacle. Each morning and evening, a priest burned incense on this altar, a picture of intercession and a representation of the people’s prayers going to God (Psalm 141:2). On the day of atonement the high priest was to take the coals from the altar of incense and go into the Holy of Holies so that smoke would fill the room and cover the mercy seat. Jesus is our intercessor through whom we have access to God and through whom we offer our prayers to the Father.
- Ark of the covenant. Finally, the most important piece was the ark of the covenant. On the top of the ark of the covenant were the cherubim of glory covering the mercy seat. This was considered the throne of God where God met with his people (Exodus 25:10-22; Psa 80:1; 99:1). On the day of atonement the high priest sprinkled blood upon this mercy seat. It is an interesting visualization when we remember that the two tablets of stone, the Law, was inside the ark of the covenant. Therefore, the law was covered by the mercy seat, which on the day of atonement, was covered by blood. Jesus is the atonement for our sins, the propitiation for the sins of the whole world (Romans 3:25; Hebrews 2:17; 1 John 2:2). Everything in the earthly tabernacle was simply a symbol for a future, greater reality found in Jesus.
(3) Inaccessible to the people (6-7). The third point that we learn about the earthly tabernacle was that it did not grant access to the people. Only the priests could go into the first section, the holy place, and perform their duties. Only the high priest could enter into the second section, the Holy of Holies, to offer atonement one time each year. Notice that the atonement was for the “unintentional sins of the people.” Some translations read, “sins of ignorance.” The point is that rebellious sins were not being atoned for by the high priest. Atonement was not provided for intentional disobedience. But the people had no access to God to be able to take care of their sins. A priest had to do the work on their behalf to make atonement for their unintentional sins. Not only this, but the priests themselves had to make offerings for their own sins before they could make sacrifices for the sins of the people. Even the high priest could not enter and perform his duty until he had his sins atoned.
(4) Temporary (8). Verse 8 appears to be a key argument that may not be readily understood. The surface point is that there is no way to enter the holy of holies while the first tabernacle stands. Nor was it revealed that we could enter. As long as the priests were serving in the holy place, the way into the presence of God had not been opened. But then the beginning of verse 9 says something interest: “which is symbolic for the present age.” The implication is that things are going to change. While the first tabernacle stands, the way into the presence of God has not been revealed. Therefore, the first tabernacle must end so that the way to God can be revealed. This is depicted the temporary nature of the tabernacle system. Further, it is implying that the temple must be destroyed so that the way to God can be revealed.
(5) External ministry (9-10). The problem with the first covenant and the tabernacle system is that these things could not perfect the conscience of the worshipper. It only deals with the externals. The consciences were not cleared or cleansed. The worshippers knew they sinned, but the sacrifice did not resolve the separation from God. It only reminded the worshipper of the sin. These sacrifices did not take care of our moral situation. They only dealt with the regulations for the body.
The Superior Heavenly Sanctuary (9:11-28)
Now the writer is going to show us how and why the heavenly sanctuary is far superior to the earthly tabernacle.
(1) Heavenly (11). We saw this contrast earlier but now it is explicitly stated. Jesus has appeared as the high priest over the good things that have come. This happened through the greater and more perfect tent. What makes this tabernacle greater is that it was not made with hands. Humans did not construct the heavenly sanctuary. It is not of this creation. Jesus is functioning as high priest in heaven in the heavenly sanctuary, that is not a copy, but the reality.
(2) Service deals with sin (12-15). Jesus’ priesthood is superior because it effectively deals with sin and the heavenly sanctuary is superior because that is where true atonement is made. Jesus entered the holy places, not with the blood of animals, but with his own blood. It is his own blood that effectively deals with sin, bringing us an eternal redemption. The blood of animals cannot solve the problem of sin. Jesus’ sacrifice is superior to the sacrifice of animals.
Further, the blood of Jesus gives purification that the blood of animals was unable to accomplish. The blood of animals brought purification of the flesh (vs. 13). If the blood of animals can deal with the ceremonial defilement and purification rituals for the externals, then how much more can the blood of Jesus deal with our sins? In fact, the writer goes further that it is the blood of Jesus that is able to purify our consciences form dead works.
The blood of Christ cleanses our consciences! This is the essence of the grace of God. We can forget about our sins. We are able to let violations go. We do not need to hold on to the guilt. We do not need to be reminded of our sins on a regular basis. The sacrifice of Jesus truly takes our sins away. We have been cleansed from our sinfulness to serve the living God. The blood of Jesus has the power to cleanse our hearts and guilty consciences.
It is wrong for us to continue to carry the weight of our sins when the blood of Jesus has taken those sins away! How can we act like the blood of Jesus is insufficient for our sins? We are either acting arrogantly, selfishly, or pitifully to think that we cannot move forward from the things that we have done wrong in our past. Why would we want to keep rehearsing and reliving our mistakes? Let the blood of Jesus cleanse your conscience! We are acting like we are under the old covenant, constantly reminding ourselves of our sins. The blood of Jesus is sufficient.
Jesus has brought us the new covenant (verse 15) and through his calling we receive the promised eternal inheritance. Jesus’ death has redeemed us. Through Jesus we are set free. Through Jesus we have forgiveness. Through Jesus we are redeemed.