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Hebrews

Earthly Shadows, Heavenly Lighty

Hebrews  9

It is necessary, given the poverty of education these days, to begin with an introduction on the subject of symbolic communication. For thousands of years even the most illiterate peasant was taught to interpret the meanings of various symbols. Even in our day things like flags carry a meaning far beyond their making. The subject is complex, but for our purposes we may note three things:

  • First, the pictures tell a story. When a story is told with symbols, we are meant to assign an interpretation to those symbols.
  • Second, one of the major uses of symbols is to make that story bite into your heart and mind. (How do you feel about flag burning?)
  • Finally, as stated here, God uses this technique to show us the core of his message for us – as explained here by Paul.

It is amusing to note that some commentators can see this clearly in Hebrews – but not in Revelation. Others see it in Revelation, but not here. In simplicity of mind and heart, then, let us see what the Apostle has to say to us.

1Now the first covenant had regulations for worship and also an earthly sanctuary. 2A tabernacle was set up. In its first room were the lampstand, the table and the consecrated bread; this was called the Holy Place. 3Behind the second curtain was a room called the Most Holy Place, 4which had the golden altar of incense and the gold-covered ark of the covenant. This ark contained the gold jar of manna, Aaron’s staff that had budded, and the stone tablets of the covenant. 5Above the ark were the cherubim of the Glory, overshadowing the atonement cover.£ But we cannot discuss these things in detail now.

6When everything had been arranged like this, the priests entered regularly into the outer room to carry on their ministry. 7But only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance. 8The Holy Spirit was showing by this that the way into the Most Holy Place had not yet been disclosed as long as the first tabernacle was still standing. 9This is an illustration for the present time, indicating that the gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper. 10They are only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings—external regulations applying until the time of the new order.

11When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here,£ he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation. 12He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption. 13The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. 14How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death,£ so that we may serve the living God!

15For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.

16In the case of a will,£ it is necessary to prove the death of the one who made it, 17because a will is in force only when somebody has died; it never takes effect while the one who made it is living. 18This is why even the first covenant was not put into effect without blood. 19When Moses had proclaimed every commandment of the law to all the people, he took the blood of calves, together with water, scarlet wool and branches of hyssop, and sprinkled the scroll and all the people. 20He said, “This is the blood of the covenant, which God has commanded you to keep.”£ 21In the same way, he sprinkled with the blood both the tabernacle and everything used in its ceremonies. 22In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.

23It was necessary, then, for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these sacrifices, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. 24For Christ did not enter a man-made sanctuary that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence. 25Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own. 26Then Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But now he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. 27Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, 28so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.

Earthly Shadows

We see here the penultimate picture. God has laid out for the Jews (and for us) the picture of the redemption. It was portrayed in the Tabernacle and Temple for us. We can but summarize its points, but (as we shall see) the story told in these pictures still has meaning for us today.

Progressive constriction

Job in his passionate lament of ill fortune gives the desire of many of us: if only I could argue my case in front of God.[1] How can I do that? How can I ever approach the Lord of All? The Old Testament laid out a way – but at each step the way becomes progressively more constricted:

  • First, no one but the people of God (the Jews) may even begin to approach him.
  • Next, the great majority can only approach God to the first step. They did this by purifying themselves and bringing their sacrifices to the priests.
  • Only the priests could go beyond the outer courtyard. If you were a priest, you could go into the Holy Place. There you would find two things: a lampstand, giving light, and the bread on the table.
  • Finally, only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies, of which we will say more later.

Does this still apply today? It surely does. No one but the people of God can count on being heard. But we can take the next step, being of a royal priesthood – we can go into the Holy Place. There we will find light (the Word of God) and bread – his providence for us. But, as yet, we cannot enter the Holy of Holies – only Jesus does that.

Journey to the center

This is also a picture of our becoming mature in Christ:

  • First, as babes, we begin with repentance and confession, which with the cleansing of baptism (symbolism!) allows us to be named among the people of God.
  • Next, so that we might mature, we take in the light of the word and the bread of his providential care. We are priests, so we do what priests do. We offer sacrifices (our good works) and prayers (as we intercede for others).

It is only when we bump up against the Holy of Holies that we are still forbidden. But there is meaning there too. Our High Priest, Jesus Christ, has gone in. And just as the high priest in the Old Testament went in once per year, Christ has gone in to present sacrifice only once – his blood, on the Cross. Just like those high priests, his sacrifice was indeed blood.

At the center, what do you find?

If you could look inside the Holy of Holies, what would you find?

  • An “altar of incense.” Incense (symbolically) represents prayer. So this is the altar at which our prayers are presented.
  • We also see the Ark of the Covenant.

What about that ark? What does it mean to us?

  • Inside the ark you would find three things: manna (which symbolizes God’s care for us), Aaron’s staff (which represents the miracles of God) and the stone tablets of the Law (which are there to remind us of our sin). These then are witnesses to us; hence it is often called the Ark of the Testimony.
  • The cover of the ark has two names: “atonement cover” and “mercy seat.” Here we find that God covers over our sins, and thus we have mercy.
  • Over that cover are the cherubim “of the Glory.” It is indeed the glory of God that we are in his care, kept by his power and reminded of our sins – so that we may obtain mercy and grace.

Note one thing: there is no lampstand. The glory of God is its light. Of this we shall speak more later.

Heavenly Light

We can see many parallels to the New Covenant here as well. Indeed, symbolic language takes us deep in meaning.

The New Covenant

Paul uses the term “covenant” in some verses; the same Greek word is translated “will” in other verses. It is the fact that the first covenant was implemented with blood (of animals); the new covenant was implemented with the blood of Christ.

  • This covenant has a mediator. Now, it is clear that a mediator is one who goes between two others – in this case, between us and God. A mediator cannot be a mediator and at the same time one of the parties being mediated. But only one who was divine could possibly mediate with God. Do you not see that God (who is one) must have at least two persons? (The trinity is a great mystery).
  • We see that this covenant is effective on death, as a will would be. But do you not also see that – like a will – it causes some to inherit and some to be cut off? Those who genuinely believe in Him will inherit. Those who do not – the terms of the will are quite clear on this – are cut off.
  • Note, please, that Christ did not “become” the High Priest – he came as the High Priest. This was God’s plan from the very beginning of time.
Our journey

The steps to the Holy of Holies also show us the path to Christian maturity.

  • We begin in the outer court. How? By repentance and confession (the acts of purification) and baptism (the rite of purification) we present ourselves to the priests (the church).
  • We continue into the Holy Place – but not with empty hands. We come in presenting our sacrifices (the good works) and incense (prayers)
  • But – there is still one place we cannot go. The Holy of Holies is reserved for Christ. As yet.
When He returns

I’ve often heard that the curtain of the Temple was ripped (top to bottom) so that we might go into the Holy of Holies. This is not so. It was ripped so that HE might go in. As yet we are not there. But the time is coming:

22I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. 23The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. 24The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. 25On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. 26The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. 27Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. (Revelation 21:22-27)

What will that day bring?

  • There is no temple in that city – for there will be no need for it.
  • The way to God will be completely open to us – as we will reign with Christ.
  • Those who are in that city will be completely pure.

We have only the faintest glimpse of the glory to come – the glory God will show when all barriers between him and his children are taken away.

Action Items

So what should we do about all this? May I suggest that we consider this in three steps: what we should do now; how we should look to his return, and the reward to come.

Royal Priesthood

We are indeed a royal priesthood; that carries its own implications.

  • We must continue to “present sacrifices” – the good works which every Christian should find at hand to do.
  • We must also “present incense” – our prayers to God, especially on behalf of others.
Watch for his imminent return

This is not a passive waiting for his arrival. The time God gives the church is running out; the Father alone knows when. But until then there is work to do:

  • Knowing that his return is imminent, is there any excuse for our slack in seeking and saving the lost?
  • His return might be this very day. Is your life in such order that you would welcome him – or beg a few days longer to make things right?
  • And, as in all things, we should bathe these things in prayer. We should pray for the lost – and pray for our correction.
Ours the Cross, the grave, the skies

What, then, can we say to the lost? I would sum it up for you in three steps:

  • “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” Ours is the Cross, on which our Savior and High Priest shed his blood, so that we (and they) might be forgiven.
  • The New Covenant – the church – was instituted as a will is enforced: on the death of the one who wrote it. By his death he conquered death. The time of his return is – “soon.” It will be a glory to his saints and doom to those who refuse him.

The matter hangs together. From the beginning this was God’s plan; he portrayed it to the Jews of old. He has now committed it to us. Let us therefore do His will – until He comes.


[1] Job 13:3

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