A Heavenly Sanctuary, part 1 (Hebrews 9:1-5)

We are beginning Hebrews 9 today.

1 Now even the first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly place of holiness. 2 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. 3 Behind the second curtain was a second section called the Most Holy Place, 4 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. 5 Above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat.  Of these things we cannot now speak in detail.

You might be wondering, “What does this have to do with my life in 2023?”  Well, our author will get to this point–although we won’t today—which shows how this impacts our lives even today:

“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” (Hebrews 9:13-14)

How many of us long to have a pure conscience?  How many of us deeply desire to know that all our sins are finally and fully forgiven, that there truly is “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1)?  Well, the author of Hebrews is going to show us how this is possible through Jesus Christ, the mediator of the New Covenant.

God’s way of dealing with sin has changed, but the fundamental problem that faced Old Testament Israel and New Testament believers is the same problem we face today—we need a way to attain a pure conscience.

The fact is, we still deal with guilt and a guilty conscience.  Years ago, psychologist Eric Fromm observed, “It is indeed amazing that in as fundamentally irreligious a culture as ours, the sense of guilt should be so widespread and deep-rooted as it is” (The Sane Society, [publisher unknown], p. 181).  A cartoon hit the nail on the head.  It showed a psychologist saying to his patient, “Mr. Figby, I think I can explain your feelings of guilt.  You’re guilty!”

The Bible declares that all of us are guilty before the bench of God’s holy justice. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).  The Bible teaches that guilt is more than just a bad feeling.  It is true moral culpability that alienates us from God and brings us under His decreed penalty, eternal punishment in the lake of fire (Rev. 20:11-15).  But, thankfully, the Bible also declares that God has provided a remedy for our guilt.  It is vital that we understand and apply this remedy personally.

John MacArthur (The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, Hebrews [Moody Press], p. 221) points out that the Bible only devotes two chapters to the story of creation, but it gives about 50 chapters to the tabernacle.  It was the center of Jewish worship under the old covenant.  It was God’s prescribed way to enjoy fellowship with Him on this earth.

The author of Hebrews begins his stark comparison between the saving powers of the old and new covenants with a brief summary in verses 1–5 of the layout and furnishings of the wilderness tabernacle, which he concludes by saying, “Of these things we cannot now speak in detail” (v. 5).  And, indeed, there was no real need to discuss them in detail because his Jewish readers were well acquainted with the desert sanctuary and its regulations for worship.  But we are not.  And thus, some detail is in order before we launch into the comparison of the covenantal systems.

Israel’s tabernacle was a portable tent-shrine that was always situated at the geographical heart of Israel, with all the tribes camped around it in designated orderly formation.  It was natural for the writer to use the tabernacle for his lesson, rather than the temple, because he proceeded to associate this sanctuary with the giving of the Old Covenant at Mt. Sinai (cf. 8:5). Furthermore, he had been using Israel’s experiences in the wilderness to challenge his readers.

Approaching the tabernacle, one first would see the white linen walls of the court of the tabernacle, which formed an enclosure 150 feet long and seventy-five feet wide.  The uniform whiteness of the enclosure’s walls broadcast the holiness of its function.  The fence surrounding the courtyard was about 7½ feet high.

When a worshiper entered the courtyard, he was immediately in front of the altar of burnt offering, a large bronze altar with a horn at each of its four corners to which offerings could be tied.  It was a hollow wooden box about 7½ feet long and 4½ feet high and was overlaid with bronze.  A few steps farther in would bring you to a stand on which was a bronze basin filled with water where ceremonial washings would occur (Exod. 30:17-2138:8).

This was as far as the layman could come, and it is here that he laid his hands on the head of the sin offering (Leviticus 1:4) in order to identify with it.  Behind the altar and a little to the right stood the bronze laver, a washbasin for the exclusive use of the priests, which, if neglected, imperiled their lives (Exodus 30:20, 21).

Directly behind the laver was the tabernacle, a flat-roofed, oblong tent fifteen feet in height and width and forty-five feet long.  It was made of wood but was overlaid with gold.  It was covered with three layers of cloth and skin.  The first consisted of gorgeous woven tapestries of blue, purple, and scarlet yarns and linen, which was then overlaid with two layers of animal skins.  Inside, the tabernacle was divided into two rooms by an ornate veil woven of the same colors along with gold and embroidered with cherubim.  The veil was supported by four golden columns set on silver bases.  The first outer room was called the Holy Place, and the second inner compartment the Most Holy Place or Holy of Holies.

Our writer briefly describes these rooms.  Of the first room he says, “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” (v. 2).

There were no windows in the tabernacle, so the lampstand was there to provide light.  The lampstand was made of solid gold, with three branches springing from either side and each of its seven branches supporting a flower-shaped lampholder (cf. Exodus 25:31ff.; 37:17ff.).  The table, called “the table of the bread of the Presence” (Numbers 4:7), contained twelve loaves of bread, one for each tribe.  

These furnishings were all profoundly prophetic of Christ.  The seven-branched candlestick of pure gold speaks of the Divine Son who left Heaven’s glory to become the light of the world and make his people to shine as such (cf. Matthew 5:14–16; John 1:4, 5; 8:12) by reflecting His glory.

The consecrated bread anticipates Christ’s words, “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35ff.).  He is the true spiritual sustenance of his people, and apart from him there is no life.  We “feed” on Him through faith in Him and His teachings.

Now the attention shifts (Heb 9:3–5) to the most holy place, commonly called “the holy of holies.”  No Israelite had access, and even the high priest entered just once a year on the Day of Atonement, and then only because he represented the nation and had undergone a week of ritual cleansing from sin. It was the most sacred spot in the world because Yahweh dwelt there.  Of course, he is omnipresent and everywhere at all times, but the most holy place was his special dwelling place.  In the first century, it was an empty room, as the Babylonians and others had long before cleaned it out of its furnishings.  Still, it symbolized all it had previously meant to the Jewish people.

“Behind the second curtain,” he says, “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” (vv. 3–5).

Scholars have been puzzled because elsewhere the Scriptures place the golden altar of incense not inside the Holy of Holies, but in the outer room “in front of the veil” before the Holy of Holies (Exodus 30:6).  In fact, it had to be outside the Holy of Holies because it was used daily by other priests (Exodus 30:7, 8).  So why does the author of Hebrews present the altar of incense as part of the Most Holy Place?  Most likely, as Leon Morris explains, “The author has in mind the intimate connection of the incense altar with the Most Holy Place.  So it ‘belonged to the inner sanctuary’ (1 Kings 6:22), as is shown by its situation ‘in front of the curtain that is before the ark of testimony—before the atonement cover [mercy seat] that is over the Testimony (Exodus 30:6)” (Leon Morris, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 12 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1981), pp. 81, 82).  So our author was speaking theologically, not spatially.  In other words, he was describing the connection between them in a logical sense, not a locational sense.

While the location of the incense altar is puzzling to some, its prophetic significance is not, for the incense prophesies of the ultimate prayers offered by Christ, our high priest, in the presence of God.

Finally, the cover of the ark of the covenant is even more indicative of Christ.  It was at the mercy seat, the gold plate covering the ark upon which the blood of the atonement was sprinkled, that the sins of Israel were propitiated. Romans 3:25 tells us Christ was “displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood” (NASB).  Likewise, 1 John 2:2 proclaims, “and he Himself is the propitiation for our sins” (NASB).

The mercy seat symbolized Christ’s work.  Moreover, Jesus fleshed out the contents of the ark.  He perfectly fulfilled the stone tablets of the Law (Deuteronomy 10:5; Matthew 5:17), which were there to remind Israel of their obligation to obey God’s laws and to remind them of their failure in doing so.  Aaron’s staff that budded when it confirmed him as high priest (Numbers 17:1–11) is fully flowered in Christ’s priesthood.  Again, it would remind them of their rebellion against Moses’ authority.  And the manna again speaks of him who is the ultimate Bread of Life (cf. Exodus 16:33, 34; John 6:35ff.).  But once again it would remind Israel of God’s provision and their continued dissatisfaction and ingratitude.

As God looked down into the ark, He saw the symbols of Israel’s sin, rebellion and failure.  But when the blood of sacrifice was applied to the mercy seat, the blood of sacrifice covered His sight of the sin of Israel.

It was all so glorious!  “The cherubim of glory” (9:5) perpetually looked down in wonder as they knelt at the mercy seat with their wings arched and touching overhead.  “Glory” here is a synonym for God.  They were called the “cherubim of glory” not because they were themselves glorious or beautiful but because it was between them that the “glory” of God’s presence appeared. God said of the Ark in Exodus 25:22a, “There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you.”  Everything shouts, “Glory!”

The problem is that as the Old Testament progresses, whereas God’s glory once filled the tabernacle and temple, that glory eventually departed because of the idolatry and sins of the people of Israel.

The prophet Ezekiel records a number of visions which he had concerning the glory of the Lord.  At the beginning of these visions, the glory of the Lord is seen residing within the Temple and specifically between the cherubim (Ezekiel 9:3).  As Ezekiel watches, the glory of the Lord moves to the threshold of the Temple (Ezekiel 9:3; 10:3).  From there it moves to the east gate (Ezekiel 10:19) and finally out to the mountain which is to the east of the city (Ezekiel 11:23).  This was a sign of God’s judgment.  The glory of the Lord departed and it was not long after this that the Temple was destroyed.

The ark was taken from the temple at its destruction by the Babylonians in 587 bc (Jer 3:16) and never seen again, though many legends sprang up about its preservation, perhaps hidden by an angel (2 Bar 6:7).  It was never replaced, and the holy of holies remained an empty room, as the Roman general Pompey discovered to his surprise when he entered it in 67 bc (Josephus, War 1.152–53).  In place of the ark, a small stone slab was placed in the room, called “the stone of the foundation.”

Here is the point.  Do you remember how Jesus came to Jerusalem on the week in which He was crucified?  The Biblical account is very specific.  He came by way of the Mount of Olives – the mountain directly east of the city; the mountain over which the glory of the Lord had last been seen in Ezekiel’s vision.

The coming of Jesus to the Temple was the return of the King to His sanctuary.  He came cleansing the Temple.  But more importantly, He came to provide a cleansing for all men.  In this sense, He not only cleansed the Temple, He IS the temple.  It is in Him and through Him that people today are able to approach God.

Our author is pointing out the way to approach God under the “first covenant,” the Mosaic or Sinaitic covenant (Heb. 9:1), which “had regulations for worship and an earthly place of holiness.”  It was an external system enacted in an “earthly sanctuary” (see also 8:2). Our author will point out that this way of approaching God in worship was meant to be a picture of something better.

“The chief obstacle in the way of the Hebrews’ faith was their failure to perceive that everything connected with the ceremonial law—the tabernacle, priesthood, sacrifices—was typical in its significance and value.  Because it was typical, it was only preparatory and transient, for once the Antitype materialized its purpose was served” (A. W. Pink, Hebrews, p. 460).

A contrast is set up by the word “now” at the beginning of Hebrews 9:1, which corresponds to the word “but when” in verse 11, indicating a shift from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant.  His point in verses 1-5 is to show that the tabernacle is modeled after a heavenly tabernacle, both of which point to Jesus Christ.

As we saw in 8:5, the design of the tabernacle and its worship was not left up to human ideas, but God revealed everything in great detail to Moses on the mountain.  The whole thing was an Old Testament portrait of Jesus Christ.

Thus, we are not meant, today, to prepare an animal sacrifice to present at the bronze altar, and we do not have a high priest to enter the Holy of Holies once a year to secure atonement for us.  Rather, Jesus Christ has done all that through His own death on the cross.

The author has said all he needs to discuss at this point and so concludes by remarking, “We cannot discuss these things in detail now” (v. 5) because that would go beyond his intentions.  Enough has been communicated on the actual furnishings, and now it is time to turn to the actual service taking place in the sanctuary.  The readers are now able to understand the way the ancient pieces prefigured Christ and now the author wants to move into the way their rituals prepared for the work of Christ in his ministry.

Our author is again encouraging his readers not to go back to the old rituals—the tabernacle and sacrificial system, the priesthood.  Jesus Christ is a better mediator in a heavenly tabernacle, and is a better priest offering a better sacrifice.  In all these ways our author is trying to enforce the foolishness of returning to Judaism.

This sanctuary was an earthly sanctuary, built by man (Heb. 9:11) and pitched by man (Heb. 8:2).  The Jewish people had generously brought gifts to Moses, and from these materials the tabernacle was constructed.  Then God gave spiritual wisdom and skill to Bezelel and Oholiab to do the intricate work of making the various parts of the tabernacle and its furnishings (see Exodus 35-36).  After the construction was completed, the sanctuary was put in place and dedicated to God (Exod. 40).  Even though the glory of God moved into the sanctuary, it was still an earthly building, constructed by human hands out of earthly materials.

Wiersbe notes: “Being an earthly building, it had several weaknesses.  For one thing, it would need a certain amount of repair.  Also, it was limited geographically; if it was pitched in one place, it could not be in another place.  It had to be dismantled and the various parts carried from place to place.  Furthermore, it belonged to the nation of Israel and not to the whole world” (Warren Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: New Testament, pp. 827-828).

And again, the tabernacle was clearly created to picture something deeper and more powerful.  It points again and again to Jesus Christ—His nature and His work.  This is what Israel needed to assuage their guilt and purify their consciences, and it is what we need today as well.  We don’t need rituals and regulations; we don’t need tabernacles and sacrifices; we don’t need priests.  All we need is Jesus Christ.  He is all we need for Jesus paid it all.  There is no forgiveness outside of Christ and complete forgiveness through Jesus Christ.

If you have never believed in Jesus Christ as your Savior, admit that you are a sinner in need of forgiveness and run to the cross.  Run to Jesus Christ and put your whole faith in Him alone, make Him your only hope for salvation.  Cry out to Him and say, “Jesus I believe you died for my sins and I ask you to forgive my sins through Your precious sacrifice.”

Published by

Lamar Austin

I've graduated from Citadel Bible College in Ozark, Arkansas, with a B. A. Then got my M. Div. and Th. M. at Capital Bible Seminary in Lanham, MD. I finished with a D. Min. degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, but keep on learning. I pastored at Chinese Christian Church of Greater Washington, D. C., was on staff at East Evangelical Free Church in Wichita, KS, tried to plant an EFC in Little Rock, before moving back home to Mena, where I now pastor my home church, Grace Bible Church

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