A Heavenly Sanctuary, part 2 (Hebrews 9:6-14)

We are looking in Hebrews 9 at the contrast our author makes between the earthly tabernacle and its regulations for approaching God, versus the heavenly tabernacle and its approach to God through Jesus Christ.  In verses 1-5, our author pointed out the disadvantage of the earthly tabernacle, made with human hands and earthly materials.  It was made of materials that would deteriorate over time and it was limited to a single geographical location.

The old system was inadequate for two addition encompassing reasons—its limited access and its limited efficacy.  Looking at Hebrews 9:6-10:

6 These preparations having thus been made, the priests go regularly into the first section, performing their ritual duties, 7 but into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people. 8 By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing 9 (which is symbolic for the present age). According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, 10 but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation.

Just how restricted the access was is seen in the experience of the official, hereditary priesthood as verse 6 describes it: “These preparations having thus been made [i.e., the two rooms of the tabernacle], the priests go regularly into the first section, performing their ritual duties.”  If they were fortunate, they got into the outer room once in their priestly lives—for a week.  The Israelite layperson’s access was even less—the front of the courtyard, and that’s all! If one was fortunate enough to attain to high priest (and in later years “fortunate” meant “politicized”), one could have access for a few blessed (and tense!) minutes at best.  On the Day of Atonement, when the high priest took his censer in to first burn incense in God’s presence, it was prescribed that he must not stay too long “lest he put Israel in terror.”  The people waited with bated breath, so that when he came out from the Presence alive, there went up a sigh of relief “like a gust of wind.” The writer is explicit here:

But into the second [room] only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people. By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing. (vv. 7, 8)

Notice, that only the high priest could enter into the Holy of Holies, and that only once a year.  His point is crystal-clear: throughout the ages of the old covenant, there was no direct access to God, period, for the majority of the people.

The high priest had to “take blood” because the purpose for going into the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement was to procure forgiveness of sins, not for fellowship.  The atoning blood was first for his own sins and then the sins of the people.  Access into the Holiest of All was thus severely restricted. Even when someone could enter, it wasn’t for real fellowship with God.

But as inadequate as the access to God under the old system was, it was exceeded by its limited efficacy. The blood sacrifice that the high priest offered only covered sins of ignorance: “But into the second [room] only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people” (v. 7).  

This verse mentions the “unintentional sins of the people.”  Sins of ignorance were the specific focus of the Day of Atonement.  It was assumed that known sins would be taken care of through the regular sin offerings and daily sacrifices.  In this respect, Jesus’ work is far greater than the work done on the Day of Atonement. Jesus’ work on the cross is sufficient to atone for both the sins we do in ignorance and sins that we commit intentionally.  This passage does show us that even sins done in ignorance, or unintentionally, do matter and still need forgiveness.

There was no provision in the old covenant’s sacrificial system for forgiveness of premeditated sins!  Premeditated, willful sins were called sins of the “high hand,” and for such there was no remedy.  Numbers 15:30, 31 is unequivocal: “But the person who does anything with a high hand, whether he is native or a sojourner, reviles the LORD, and that person shall be cut off from among his people.  Because he has despised the word of the LORD and has broken his commandment, that person shall be utterly cut off; his iniquity shall be on him.”

The premeditated sinner was in a huge dilemma!  Consider, for example, King David after his premeditated sin with Bathsheba and the cold-blooded murder of Uriah. The system simply did not provide a remedy. This is what Psalm 51 is all about.  David knew he was a sinner and confessed it: “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:3–5).  And he knew there was no sacrifice he could bring: “For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering” (Psalm 51:16).  What could he do?  Only one thing—come to God with a contrite heart and throw himself on God’s mercy: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:17).  This is how David was forgiven and was saved.  Thus, we see that the spiritually informed in the Old Testament came to understand that their only hope was a repentant heart and God’s grace.  Ultimately salvation rested on the blood of Christ.

The spiritual limitations of the old system went even deeper, because since only sins of ignorance were forgiven (even on the Day of Atonement), no one could have a completely clear conscience: “. . . (which is symbolic for the present age).  According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation” (vv. 9, 10).  This does not mean all Old Testament believers were afflicted with inflamed consciences.  If they were faithful in utilizing the old sacrificial system, they were forgiven for their sins of ignorance—which was no small thing.  Moreover, some people had fewer premeditated sins to their credit than others, and less real guilt.  But, nevertheless, a clear conscience in the absolute sense of the word was beyond their reach.  The author’s bottom line is that these gifts and sacrifices could not “cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper” (9:9).  The old system was deficient. It was external and superficial.

All that such offerings and sacrifices could do was to cleanse the person outwardly so that they could join in with the rest of God’s people in worship and prayer. These offerings and sacrifices only cleansed their bodies, removing ceremonial defilement and qualifying them for life in the community of God’s people. 

But their consciences were never fully and finally and forever cleansed of the defiling power of guilt that was the result of sin. 

So the limitations of the old covenant were profound— limited access and limited efficacy.  Average Joes were several ecclesiastical layers removed from access to God’s presence—and their consciences never rested easy.

The Old Covenant system of worship did not meet the deepest need of God’s people, namely, intimate personal relationship with God.  Its rites and ceremonies extended mainly to external matters—until God would provide a better system at a time of reformation (v. 10).

Here in v. 9 he also says that this way of relating to God through animal sacrifices in an earthly tabernacle was symbolic of the present time, by which he means the Old Covenant age.  His point is that he himself is living in a time of transition from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant.  With the coming of Christ the old way of relating to God has been replaced.  We have entered into what he calls in v. 10 “the time of reformation.”  The person and work of Jesus Christ have supplanted and replaced the entire ritual sacrificial system of the Old Covenant.

The whole point of this book of Hebrews is to say that the coming of Christ, the Son of God, into the world is the ending of “the present time” of the old, strange, foreign way of relating to God, and the beginning of “the reformation” where Christ himself replaces the high priest and the temple and the blood of the animals and the food and drink rituals.  That’s the point of the book of Hebrews.

Our author sees himself in the time of transition from old to new.  The old system of relating to God through ritual and sacrifice and priest and tabernacle “is becoming obsolete and is ready to disappear.  And the new order, the “reformation” has been inaugurated in Christ and is replacing the old.  Very soon the temple in Jerusalem would be utterly destroyed and the entire priestly, sacrificial system would be finished, to this day.

So, what did the tabernacle and its furniture and the activities that took place within the courtyard mean?  What did it symbolize?  Here are three things.

First, the exquisite construction of the tabernacle and the aesthetic perfection of its furnishings and the intricate design sewn into the embroidered material, together with the veil and the gold and the variety of colors throughout were all designed to serve as a visual sermon declaring the beauty of God.  Everything in the tabernacle and later in the Temple pointed to the glory and grandeur and splendor of God.

But it was especially to his holiness that all this pointed.  The necessity for continual washings and cleansing of everyone and everything that entered the tabernacle was a constant reminder that God’s holiness is of such a nature that only the perfect and pure are acceptable to him.

Second, the tabernacle and everything in it was a daily reminder not just of God’s holiness but of man’s sinfulness.  Everything there shouted out loud: Stay away!  Do not draw near!  If you come near to God, you die!  That is why access to God’s presence was restricted to only one man, the High Priest, on one day of the year, and only then if he brought to the altar a sacrifice of blood both for himself and the people.

Third, and certainly most important of all, the tabernacle and everything in it pointed to the coming of the person and work of Jesus Christ.  May I remind you that when John the apostle described the incarnation of the Son of God, the entrance into human flesh and into the life of this world of the Second Person of the Trinity, he said in John 1:14 – “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”  And the word translated “dwelt” is more literally, “tabernacled” (if I may be allowed to turn a noun into a verb)!  The mercy and grace and forgiveness and glory and beauty that the tabernacle embodied has now come to us fully and finally in the person of Jesus!

The Old Covenant sanctuary was inferior for five reasons: (1) It was an earthly sanctuary (v. 1), (2) it was a type of something greater (its antitype; vv. 2-5), and (3) it was inaccessible to the people (vv. 6-7).  Furthermore, (4) it was only temporary (v. 8), and (5) its ministry was external rather than internal (vv. 9-10).

Although this may seem irrelevant to us today, because we no longer have any use for the sacrificial system.  However, we still have consciences that need to be cleansed.  With all the scientific progress and medical discoveries we still have not figured out how people with guilty consciences can draw near to God.

John Piper writes:

Isn’t it remarkable that when we spend an evening isolated in front of our computer: addicted, as it were, to work or pornography or video games, the issue, at the end of it all, is not the wonders of technology, or science; the issue is: how can I come to God when I feel so dirty, and how can I come to my wife and children with transparent love, when my conscience is so defiled?  (And if you’re not into computers, pick your own sin—TV soaps, romance novels, stock market pages, spirit-numbing music, etc.).

Isn’t it remarkable that the basic problems of life never change.  The circumstances change, but the basic problems don’t change.  We are humans, and we have consciences that witness to our sinfulness with testimonies of real guilt.  And we know that what keeps us away from God is not dirty hands or soiled clothes or distance from an altar or a priest.  What keeps us from God is real sin echoing in a condemning conscience.

Well, fortunately for us, God has solved this problem.  He has placed us in a new time period, a period of reformation.

Watch for the differences between the old “present time” and “the time of reformation” as you read verses 11-14.

But when Christ appeared [that’s the inauguration of the “time of the reformation” and the ending of “the present time”] as a high priest of the good things to come [which have now indeed come through his death and resurrection], He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all [the true tabernacle in heaven], having obtained eternal redemption [not a yearly one].  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 [that is, ceremonial cleansing, but not real moral, spiritual cleansing], 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?

“The argument moves a stage further as the author turns specifically to what Christ has done.  The sacrifices of the old covenant were ineffectual.  But in strong contrast Christ made an offering that secures a redemption valid for all eternity.  In the sacrifices, a good deal pertained to the use of blood.  So in accord with this, the author considers the significance of the blood of animals and that of Christ.” (Leon Morris, p. 85).  The other priests offered blood; Christ offered his own blood.  The means of Jesus’ entry into the “greater and more perfect tabernacle” was superior, first negatively in that it was “not through the blood of goats and calves,” and then positively, “but through His own blood.”

Christ unlimited access to God is emphasized in vv. 11-12.  Jesus did not just slip into the Most Holy Place amidst a protective cloud of incense to breathlessly perform a ritual sprinkling and then exit until next year. Instead, he came having given his own precious blood once and for all, and there he sat down at the right hand of the Father—never more to leave.

These verses reveal two contrasts.  First, over against the earthly and temporary tabernacle of the Old Covenant, one made with human hands, the Lord Jesus Christ ministers on our behalf in the greater and more perfect tabernacle, namely, the immediate and unqualified presence of God.  Second, against the Old Covenant High Priest who had to enter in with a blood sacrifice year after year after year, Jesus offered up the sacrifice of himself “once for all” (v. 12).  Constant throughout the book of Hebrews is this emphasis on the finished work of Jesus Christ.  Unlike the priests who had to offer continual sacrifices for the sins of the people, Jesus offered one sacrifice, which is effectual for all time and throughout eternity.

But there is even more, for the unlimited access is crowned with unlimited efficacy as Christ makes consciences clean.  To make this point, the author reiterates the limited nature of the old system: “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 . . .” (v. 13) Jesus’ sacrifice was superior in that it was perfect, voluntary, rational, and motivated by love.  It “obtained eternal redemption” AND cleansed their conscience.

The limited efficacy of the old covenant could make people ceremonially clean as well as atone for sins of ignorance.  For example, if an Israelite became ceremonially defiled by touching a dead body, the remedy was ready.  All he had to do was go to a priest who had in his possession the ashes of a red heifer that had been ritually sacrificed and burned with a mixture of cedar, hyssop, and scarlet wool.  These ashes, mixed in water and ritually sprinkled on the defiled, would bring him external cleansing (cf. Numbers 19:1–13).

Considering that the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer had that much effect, “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” (v. 14).  There is deep, glorious forgiveness in the new covenant, and it is available to all.

“How much more” indicates that our author is arguing from the lesser to the greater.  Whatever efficacy towards forgiveness the blood of animals was granted, the blood of Jesus Christ could accomplish “much more.”

Those ceremonial sacrifices provided safety from an immediate display of divine wrath in temporal matters: They were a reminder, as it were, of the covenantal purpose of God to preserve this people in order that the Messiah could come. It kept them pure as a nation, a peculiar people in the flesh.

As was meant for the Old Covenant sacrifices, Jesus “offered himself without blemish to God.”  Only a pure sacrifice is able to “purify our conscience.”  “Dead works” cannot accomplish what the blood of Jesus is able to accomplish for us.

In light of the perfection of the sacrifice and its necessary effectual satisfaction of the offended justice of God, one who rests in Christ and his perfection may have purity of conscience from his fruitless efforts to gain standing by his own works—they are dead and without merit.  Now the believer rests in one whose works were perfect, done in the power of the Holy Spirit, without blemish.  Our service to God—our purpose in creation—is now acceptable to God.  Now, he “work[s] in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ.” (13:20)

No matter what sins you have committed, no matter who you are, you can experience deep, eternal forgiveness.

Albert Speer was once interviewed about his last book on ABC’s “Good Morning, America.”  Speer was the Hitler confidant whose technological genius was credited with keeping Nazi factories humming throughout World War II.  In another era he might have been one of the world’s industrial giants.  He was the only one of twenty-four war criminals tried in Nuremburg who admitted his guilt.  Speer spent twenty years in Spandau prison.

The interviewer referred to a passage in one of Speer’s earlier writings: “You have said the guilt can never be forgiven, or shouldn’t be.  Do you still feel that way?”  The look of pathos on Speer’s face was wrenching as he responded, “I served a sentence of twenty years, and I could say, ‘I’m a free man, my conscience has been cleared by serving the whole time as punishment.’  But I can’t do that.  I still carry the burden of what happened to millions of people during Hitler’s lifetime, and I can’t get rid of it.  This new book is part of my atoning, of clearing my conscience.”  The interviewer pressed the point. “You really don’t think you’ll be able to clear it totally?”  Speer shook his head.  “I don’t think it will be possible.”

For thirty-five years Speer had accepted complete responsibility for his crime.  His writings were filled with contrition and warnings to others to avoid his moral sin.  He desperately sought expiation.  All to no avail.

How pitifully sad, for forgiveness was available in the blood of Jesus Christ.  Coming to Christ would truly have been like being born again.  He literally could have had a new conscience—without the slightest sense of lingering guilt.

You can have a clear conscience if you want one, and the offer is for anyone.  If you have not yet come to Christ, the offer stands, as it always has.

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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