1 Now the first covenant, in fact, had regulations for worship and its earthly sanctuary. 2 For a tent was prepared, the outer one, which contained the lampstand, the table, and the presentation of the loaves; this is called the holy place. 3 And after the second curtain there was a tent called the holy of holies. 4 It contained the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered entirely with gold. In this ark were the golden urn containing the manna, Aaron’s rod that budded, and the stone tablets of the covenant. 5 And above the ark were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Now is not the time to speak of these things in detail.
6 So with these things prepared like this, the priests enter continually into the outer tent as they perform their duties. 7 But only the high priest enters once a year into the inner tent, and not without blood that he offers for himself and for the sins of the people committed in ignorance. 8 The Holy Spirit is making clear that the way into the holy place had not yet appeared as long as the old tabernacle was standing. 9 This was a symbol for the time then present, when gifts and sacrifices were offered that could not perfect the conscience of the worshiper. 10 They served only for matters of food and drink and various washings; they are external regulations imposed until the new order came.
11 But now Christ has come as the high priest of the good things to come. He passed through the greater and more perfect tent not made with hands, that is, not of this creation, 12 and he entered once for all into the most holy place not by the blood of goats and calves but by his own blood, and so he himself secured eternal redemption. 13 For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a young cow sprinkled on those who are defiled consecrated them and provided ritual purity, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our consciences from dead works to worship the living God (Hebrews 9:1-14).1
When Jeannette and I moved to Dallas in 1967, we had to adjust to some differences in the houses in Texas. We were amazed to find that almost no one had a basement. And we were puzzled by “parlors” or “formal living rooms.” When we would visit someone’s home, we would often encounter the “parlor.” This room and its furnishings were more formal. On a few occasions, we would encounter a parlor that was almost bare. Some people (who had spent the maximum they could afford on the purchase of their home) did not have enough money left over to furnish the parlor, at least not at first. In the home we later purchased, the “parlor” had a carpeted floor, while the “den” (separated from the parlor by a wall) had a linoleum floor. Neither the parlor nor the den was large, and so almost immediately we removed the wall separating the two rooms. The reason seemed fairly obvious to us: no one ever seemed to use their parlor. You didn’t want to get the carpet or the furniture dirty, so you tended to avoid it. And pets were certainly not welcome! In theory, this was the place where you would entertain special guests.
The “den” was where people actually lived. You could expect to find a television there and a much more “lived-in” appearance. The furniture was definitely not as nice, but this was because the kids and the family pets made good use of it. This is where you would most likely find a fireplace. It was expected that food and drinks would find their way to the den, and even that some would be spilled from time to time. The den was the place where you could relax and feel comfortable.
You may be wondering what all of this has to do with the Book of Hebrews and with our text in particular. The early verses of Hebrews 9 speak of the relationship of the outer and inner chambers of the tabernacle. The outer portion of the tabernacle is where a vast amount of ministry took place, while the inner chamber – the holy of holies – was very seldom ever entered, and that by only one man (the high priest) once a year. But the inner chamber was where God dwelled. To be more precise, God’s presence was associated with the mercy seat of the arc of the covenant, and with the seraphim that hovered above it:
18 You are to make two cherubim of gold; you are to make them of hammered metal on the two ends of the atonement lid. 19 Make one cherub on one end and one cherub on the other end; from the atonement lid you are to make the cherubim on the two ends. 20 The cherubim are to be spreading their wings upward, overshadowing the atonement lid with their wings, and the cherubim are to face each other, looking toward the atonement lid. 21 You are to put the atonement lid on top of the ark, and in the ark you are to put the testimony I am giving you. 22 I will meet with you there, and from above the atonement lid, from between the two cherubim that are over the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you about all that I will command you for the Israelites (Exodus 25:18-22, emphasis mine; see also Numbers 7:89; 1 Samuel 4:4; 6:2; 2 Kings 19:15; Psalm 80:1; 99:1; Isaiah 37:16).
In this message, I am likening the outer chamber of the tabernacle to the “den” and the inner chamber – the holy of holies – to the “parlor” or formal living room. God’s presence was in the “parlor,” so to speak, but the Israelites were never allowed there, nor were the priests; only the high priest could enter, one time a year. And so how was it possible for men to enter into fellowship with God? How could men “draw near” to God under the Old Covenant, when worship was carried out by means of the tabernacle and the Levitical priesthood? In our text, the author is reminding his readers that it is not possible to “draw near” to God in intimate fellowship by means of the Old Covenant, the tabernacle, and the Levitical priesthood. Fortunately, by the end of our text, we will discover just how it is that God has made it possible for men to enjoy intimate fellowship by drawing near to Him.
I would point out that our text is part of the very heart of the message of Hebrews. His argument will reach its climax in the 18th verse of chapter 10. From there, the author will focus on the application of his message. But our text plays a very significant role in bringing the author’s argument to a conclusion. Therefore, we should see our text as crucial to gaining an understanding of this book and to drawing near to God.
Several themes have converged at this juncture of the book. One theme is that of the sinfulness of man, and thus the impossibility of man drawing near to God on the basis of his own efforts and merits.2 If man is to find forgiveness of sins and the joy of intimacy with God, it will have to come from some source outside of man – it will have to come from God Himself. And so it is that our Lord is presented as God’s final word to man (1:1-4), and as such we must listen carefully to what He has to say to us (2:1-4). In order to identify with lost sinners, to bear their guilt and punishment, and to serve as their Great High Priest, our Lord became God incarnate by adding sinless humanity to His undiminished deity (2:5-18; 4:14-16; 5:1-10). Redemption and reconciliation with God that could not be achieved under the Old (Mosaic) Covenant is thus provided as the result of a New Covenant. The better promises of this New Covenant have just been cited in chapter 8. And now (in 9:1—10:18) the author is spelling out how the New Covenant was fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Our text falls into three sections. The first of these is verses 1-5, where the author calls attention to the furnishings of the inner and outer chambers of the tabernacle. Verses 6-10 concentrate on the function of tabernacle worship and the message which the Holy Spirit wants us to learn from tabernacle worship. Finally, verses 11-14 turn our attention to the superior priesthood of Jesus Christ and its consequences for Christians: a cleansed conscience which facilitates intimacy with God and service for God.
Let us begin, then, by considering verses 1-5.
1 Now the first covenant, in fact, had regulations for worship and its earthly sanctuary. 2 For a tent was prepared, the outer one, which contained the lampstand, the table, and the presentation of the loaves; this is called the holy place. 3 And after the second curtain there was a tent called the holy of holies. 4 It contained the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered entirely with gold. In this ark were the golden urn containing the manna, Aaron’s rod that budded, and the stone tablets of the covenant. 5 And above the ark were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Now is not the time to speak of these things in detail (Hebrews 9:1-5).
Let’s begin by observing from our text that it opens (verse 1) and closes (verse 14) with its focus on worship. It begins with tabernacle worship under the Old Covenant and ends with the much superior worship of the living God through the ministry of Jesus Christ. The author begins the chapter by calling our attention to the furnishings of the inner and outer chambers of the tabernacle in verses 1-5.
I must confess that I’ve never really been one to pay a great deal of attention to furniture. Maybe it’s a “male thing,” maybe not. But one does have to admit that the furnishings of the tabernacle would have been spectacular. Not only were they made according to a divinely revealed pattern, but they were also fashioned by craftsmen with supernatural gifting to produce what other craftsmen could only wish to create. And let us not overlook the fact that they were either solid gold3 or gold plated.4
When the Israelites pitched camp, the tabernacle tent was erected so that worship could begin. The outer room – the holy place – contained the golden lampstand,5 as well as the table on which the bread of presentation was placed.6 Beyond the holy place and behind a curtain was the inner chamber, called the holy of holies. There was placed the golden altar of incense7 and the ark of the covenant.8 Inside the ark of the covenant was a golden urn which contained a sample of the manna God provided while His people were in the wilderness.9 With it was Aaron’s rod that budded10 and, of course, the stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written.11 On top of the ark, facing each other, were the golden cherubim, overlooking the mercy seat.12
Much could be said of these magnificent tabernacle furnishings, and in some commentaries and sermons, much is said. But the author’s words in verse 5 give us pause, for while this is possible, and in some cases it might be profitable, this is not what the author has in mind here. Why was it not the time for the author to consider the tabernacle furnishings in much greater detail? I would suggest the following for your consideration.
First, it may well have been the beauty and glory of these furnishings that contributed to the Hebrew Christians’ temptation to fall back into the old way of worship under the Old Covenant and the leadership of the Levitical priesthood. The author’s purpose is not to glorify these furnishings or the worship they facilitated, but to emphasize the superior worship God provided through the work of the Son.
Second, the author sees these former things as shadows of the better things to come, the better things that have come due to the person and work of Jesus Christ. His intent is to focus our attention on the substance, rather than on the shadows. Let me seek to illustrate this by calling your attention to the fact that today is Jacob Abraham’s first wedding anniversary. As you know, his wife Serene has not yet received permission to enter our country, but they hope that it will happen next month. I’m sure that Jake has many pictures of Serene, and these are no doubt a source of comfort, joy, and expectation. But when Serene arrives, those pictures will not have the importance they now have. When Serene arrives, Jake will put away the pictures and rejoice in the person, face-to-face. So it is with our worship today. Why dwell on the prototypes when the reality has come?
Third, our author is not really as interested in the furnishings of the tabernacle as he is in their function. I believe that he wants our attention to be focused on the two chambers of the tabernacle – the den and the parlor, if you please – and their relationship. There is something for us to learn from these, and the author is just about to reveal what that is.
6 So with these things prepared like this, the priests enter continually into the outer tent as they perform their duties. 7 But only the high priest enters once a year into the inner tent, and not without blood that he offers for himself and for the sins of the people committed in ignorance. 8 The Holy Spirit is making clear that the way into the holy place had not yet appeared as long as the old tabernacle was standing. 9 This was a symbol for the time then present, when gifts and sacrifices were offered that could not perfect the conscience of the worshiper. 10 They served only for matters of food and drink and various washings; they are external regulations imposed until the new order came (Hebrews 9:6-10).
So now the tabernacle has been set up, and the furnishings are in place so that worship can commence. Just how did worship work under the Old Covenant, implemented by means of the tabernacle? We are told how it worked in verses 6 and 7. Verse 6 describes the daily worship that took place in the holy place, the outer portion of the tabernacle. Verse 7 contrasts the daily workings of the priests in the outer chamber of the tabernacle with the once-a-year ministry of the high priest on the Day of Atonement13 which took place in the holy of holies.
The holy place (the outer chamber of the tabernacle – the “den”) was a virtual beehive of activity on a day-to-day basis. The priests14 were there to pronounce men and women clean or unclean, as prescribed by the law and as seen practiced in Matthew.15 They were also present to offer the different sacrifices that were set forth in the law.16 In addition to this, they were to teach the law to the Israelites.17 The courtyard and the outer court of the tabernacle must have been as busy as a shopping mall the day after Thanksgiving.
In stark contrast to this flurry of priestly activity in the outer chamber and the courtyard is the lack of activity in the inner chamber of the tabernacle – the holy of holies. Only one person – the high priest – could enter the holy of holies, and he could only do so on the annual Day of Atonement.18 And he dare not enter without the blood of a sacrifice. The high priest must first offer a sacrifice for his own sins and only then could he offer a sacrifice for the sins of the people.19 The author further specifies that the sacrifice which he offers for the people is for those sins they have committed unintentionally.20
I don’t know about you, but this would have made me very uneasy. My intentional (willful) sins are many; my unintentional sins seem few. And so when the high priest offered the sacrifice on the annual Day of Atonement, I would have to wonder how many sins were beyond the scope of that sacrifice.
The author is seeking to make a point here. He has focused our attention on the activities (or lack of them) in the outer and inner sanctuaries of the tabernacle. He then tells us that the Holy Spirit is teaching us something by these things that are being discussed regarding tabernacle worship.
8 The Holy Spirit is making clear that the way into the holy place had not yet appeared as long as the old tabernacle was standing. 9 This was a symbol for the time then present, when gifts and sacrifices were offered that could not perfect the conscience of the worshiper. 10 They served only for matters of food and drink and various washings; they are external regulations imposed until the new order came (Hebrews 9:6-10).
I believe the author is here speaking in reference to the Israelites in general, rather than just the priests or the high priest. Tabernacle worship restricted almost everyone from access to God’s presence. The courtyard of the tabernacle was as close as the average Israelite could get to God. The priests got a little closer because they carried out their tasks in the outer chamber of the tabernacle. But only the high priest could enter the holy of holies, once a year. One could hardly call the high priest’s relationship with God “intimate.” Thus, our author contends, as long as the tabernacle system was in place, there was no “way into the holy place” for the people of God.
I believe that this restriction from access to God’s presence was evident in the design of the tabernacle. So far as I can tell, there was no door into the holy of holies. The only way into the holy of holies seems to have been through the outer chamber, the holy place. But the outer chamber was separated from the holy of holies by a very substantial curtain or veil. This substantial and very ornate screen was the only entrance to the holy of holies, and it could hardly be called a door. It was securely connected so that no one would venture in, to their own destruction.
There was good reason why no Israelite – the priests included – could enter into intimate communion with God: sin. The high priest, all of the other priests, and the Israelites were sinners, and thus they could not draw near to God because of their sin.21 The sacrifices that the priests offered did not remove sins, they simply postponed the day of accounting for sin. And since these sacrifices did not remove sins, they could not cleanse the conscience of these sinners, so that they were rather naturally inclined to keep their distance from God.22 Tabernacle worship conducted by the Levitical priests under the Old Covenant could not perfect men, 23 and because their access to God was limited, their worship was inferior to worship mediated by our Great High Priest under the terms of the New Covenant.
We know that the source of our sin is not from outward contamination, but from a heart that is in rebellion against God. For sin to be dealt with there must be an adequate sacrifice, and it must cleanse the heart. This is precisely what was promised in the New Covenant, as we have read in chapter 8.24 The tabernacle system dealt with matters like food and drink and outward impurities. It could not solve man’s sin problem, and thus its worship would always be less than ideal. No wonder the Pharisees were always concerned about external matters:
25 “Woe to you, experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside may become clean too! 27 “Woe to you, experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs that look beautiful on the outside but inside are full of the bones of the dead and of everything unclean. 28 In the same way, on the outside you look righteous to people, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matthew 23:25-28).
11 But now Christ has come as the high priest of the good things to come. He passed through the greater and more perfect tent not made with hands, that is, not of this creation, 12 and he entered once for all into the most holy place not by the blood of goats and calves but by his own blood, and so he himself secured eternal redemption. 13 For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a young cow sprinkled on those who are defiled consecrated them and provided ritual purity, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our consciences from dead works to worship the living God (Hebrews 9:11-14).
The solution to the flaws and weaknesses of tabernacle worship is found in Jesus Christ. He is the “high priest of the good things to come.” Others render verse 11 so as to indicate that the “good things” have already come. 25 My inclination is to say that while a good deal of the promises of the New Covenant have been fulfilled by the first coming of our Lord, the complete fulfillment of these promises will not take place until after His second coming. I believe that these “good things to come” are the “better promises of the New Covenant,” as indicated in verse 6 of chapter 8:
But now Jesus has obtained a superior ministry, since the covenant that he mediates is also better and is enacted on better promises (Hebrews 8:6).
The superior ministry of our Lord was not performed in the context of the old tabernacle. No, His place of ministry is the better, perfect, tabernacle of which the old tabernacle was but a shadow. I believe that the perfect tabernacle where Christ now carries our His priestly ministry is His heavenly throne:
The Son is the radiance of his glory and the representation of his essence, and he sustains all things by his powerful word, and so when he had accomplished cleansing for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high (Hebrews 1:3).
Therefore since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession (Hebrews 4:14).
Now the main point of what we are saying is this: We have such a high priest, one who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven (Hebrews 8:1).
But when this priest had offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, he sat down at the right hand of God (Hebrews 10:12).
Having died for our sins, our Lord was raised from the dead, and He ascended to the right hand of the Father in heaven. This is the true “holy of holies,” the dwelling place of God, of which the inner chamber of the tabernacle was only a shadow. This is no “man-made” creation. Our Lord entered the presence of the Father after having secured our eternal redemption, and this not by means of any animal sacrifices, but by the shedding of His own blood. If mere animal sacrifices – the blood of goats and bulls and cow ashes – served to bring about external bodily cleansings, then how much more would our Lord achieve by His sacrifice? This was the sacrifice of Him who was without blemish, offered through the eternal (Holy) Spirit.26 And one result of His sacrifice that our author chooses to call to our attention is the purification of our consciences from dead works, enabling us to worship and serve the living God (verse 14).
Just what are these “dead works” from which our consciences are cleansed? I would understand “dead works” to include two categories of sin. The first is those sins of the flesh which lead to death, such as those described in Romans 6:
15 What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Absolutely not! 16 Do you not know that if you present yourselves as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or obedience resulting in righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God that though you were slaves to sin, you obeyed from the heart that pattern of teaching you were entrusted to, 18 and having been freed from sin, you became enslaved to righteousness. 19 (I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh.) For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification. 20 For when you were slaves of sin, you were free with regard to righteousness. 21 So what benefit did you then reap from those things that you are now ashamed of? For the end of those things is death. 21 So what benefit did you then reap from those things that you are now ashamed of? For the end of those things is death. 22 But now, freed from sin and enslaved to God, you have your benefit leading to sanctification, and the end is eternal life. 23 For the payoff of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:15-21, emphasis mine).
A second category of “dead works” would include those religious works that we perform in the power of the flesh, seeking to earn God’s favor. Such works are described by Paul in Philippians 3. These are “works” that he performed in the name of Judaism which Paul did not realize were actually done in opposition to God:
1 Finally, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord! To write this again is no trouble to me, and it is a safeguard for you. 2 Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh! 3 For we are the circumcision, the ones who worship by the Spirit of God, exult in Christ Jesus, and do not rely on human credentials 4 – though mine too are significant. If someone thinks he has good reasons to put confidence in human credentials, I have more: 5 I was circumcised on the eighth day, from the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews. I lived according to the law as a Pharisee. 6 In my zeal for God I persecuted the church. According to the righteousness stipulated in the law I was blameless. 7 But these assets I have come to regard as liabilities because of Christ. 8 More than that, I now regard all things as liabilities compared to the far greater value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things – indeed, I regard them as dung! – that I may gain Christ, 9 and be found in him, not because I have my own righteousness derived from the law, but because I have the righteousness that comes by way of Christ’s faithfulness – a righteousness from God that is in fact based on Christ’s faithfulness. 10 My aim is to know him, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings, and to be like him in his death (Philippians 3:1-10).
Our text has concluded with the bold assertion that through the work of our Great High Priest, those who trust in Him have their consciences cleansed from dead works. We have considered what our author means by “dead works,” but we have not given sufficient attention to what it means to have a cleansed conscience. Let’s begin with how men’s consciences were defiled. To do this, I would first like to call your attention to Genesis 3:
7 Then the eyes of both of them opened, and they knew they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. 8 Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God moving about in the orchard at the breezy time of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the orchard. 9 But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” 10 The man replied, “I heard you moving about in the orchard, and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid” (Genesis 3:7-10, emphasis mine).
Can you imagine what it would have been like to live without sin, and without any sense of guilt or shame? Adam and Eve did, but apparently not for long. Without sin, they had no sense of shame in being naked, before each other, or before God. They could look forward to those times when they could enjoy fellowship with God in the garden.27 All this changed when Adam and Eve became sinners by disobeying His command regarding the forbidden fruit. They immediately covered themselves and sought to hide from God among the trees of the garden. I believe it was because they were guilty of sin, and they knew it. To put it in terms of our text in Hebrews, their consciences were defiled. And those with defiled consciences do not desire to be in God’s presence.
At the time when God was giving the law to the people of Israel, we again see how man’s sin and his defiled conscience caused men to try to stay at arm’s reach from God:
18 All the people were seeing the thundering and the lightning, and heard the sound of the horn, and saw the mountain smoking – and when the people saw it they trembled with fear and kept their distance. 19 They said to Moses, “You speak to us and we will listen, but do not let God speak with us, lest we die.” 20 Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you so that you do not sin.” 21 The people kept their distance, but Moses drew near the thick darkness where God was (Exodus 20:18-21; see also Deuteronomy 5:22-27; 18:15-18).
This is something that is very important for us to grasp. On the one hand, God established various barriers to keep men from getting too close, because God is holy and we are sinners. But there is a second reason why men keep their distance from God: as sinners, our consciences are defiled so that we seek to hide from God and to keep our distance from Him. In Hebrews 9:1-14, our author tells us that Christ’s atoning sacrifice through the shedding of His blood solves both sides of the problem. God’s wrath toward our sin is satisfied or appeased (the fancy theological word is “propitiated”), so that we can approach Him. But Christ’s sacrificial death and resurrection also purifies our guilt-ridden consciences, so that we no longer seek to draw back from a Holy God. Thus, the work of our Lord on the cross of Calvary not only paid the penalty for our sins, it cleansed our consciences, thus removing a significant barrier to our fellowship with God.
The Old Covenant did not permanently cleanse men of their sins, and it did not purify their defiled consciences. I believe this is evident in the reaction of the Jewish religious leaders in Acts chapter 23:
1 Paul looked directly at the council and said, “Brothers, I have lived my life with a clear conscience before God to this day.” 2 At that the high priest Ananias ordered those standing near Paul to strike him on the mouth (Acts 23:1-2).
Just what was it that made the high priest so angry? He was reacting to Paul’s claim to have a pure conscience before God. To the high priest, this was the height of arrogance and error. How dare Paul claim to have a pure conscience? In one sense, the high priest was right because under the law, there was no forgiveness of sins, and neither was there a cleansing of the conscience. Thus, a devout Jew who depended upon the “ceremonial cleansing” of the Old Covenant could never experience a purified conscience. No wonder Paul’s claim to have a clear conscience before God brought such a violent response. While Judaism (the Old Covenant, tabernacle worship, and the Levitical priesthood) could not remove the guilt of sin nor cleanse the conscience of the sinner, Christ could and did under the New Covenant.
A cleansed conscience greatly enhanced one’s worship, since the blood-cleansed believer could now boldly draw near to God:
19 Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the fresh and living way that he inaugurated for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a sincere heart in the assurance that faith brings, because we have had our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed in pure water (Hebrews 10:19-22, emphasis mine).
I said at the beginning of this lesson that our text begins and ends with worship. The Old Covenant made it possible for men to draw nearer to God than any ancient people ever dreamed:
5 Look! I have taught you statutes and ordinances just as the Lord my God told me to do, so that you might carry them out in the land you are about to enter and possess. 6 So be sure to do them, because this will testify of your wise understanding to the people who will learn of all these statutes and say, “Indeed, this great nation is a very wise people.” 7 In fact, what other great nation has a god so near to them like the Lord our God whenever we call on him? 8 And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this whole law that I am about to share with you today? (Deuteronomy 4:5-8, emphasis mine)
But it is good for me to draw near to God;
I have put my trust in the Lord GOD,
That I may declare all Your works (Psalm 73:28, NKJV).
But how much nearer one can now draw to God since the coming of our Lord Jesus in human flesh. He has drawn near to us. At this Christmas season, we rejoice in the coming of Immanuel – God with us (Matthew 1:23). He not only drew near to us in His incarnation, He provided a way for us to draw near to Him through His sacrificial death on the cross of Calvary. That cleansing death satisfied the wrath of a Holy God, and it also cleanses the conscience of every blood-bought sinner who has trusted in Jesus as the Promised Messiah.
One may read the Book of Hebrews and marvel at the fact that some of those to whom this book was written would consider forsaking Christ and turning back to Judaism.28 A modern day Christian might also wonder just what it was that was so appealing (or so terrifying) that a Hebrew who professed faith in Christ would consider turning back to Judaism. For some, it may well have been the threat of persecution (see Galatians 6:12). But for many others, it may have been the beauty and glory of the Old Covenant liturgy. Granted, the average Israelite would never have seen the furnishings mentioned in verses 1-5 of our text. But they would certainly know about them, not only from the testimony of the few priests who actually saw them, but also from their description in the law. They would know that they were solid gold or gold plated. They would know that their design was so intricate that it took men specially gifted by God to fashion them. They might be fortunate enough to see the priests’ garments and portions of the tabernacle as it was being taken down or put up.
Now think about the stark contrast of tabernacle or temple worship to that which we find described in Acts 2 or 20, or 1 Corinthians 11-14. I would infer that the vast majority of New Testament churches were “house churches” in those days.29 That is, the saints often met in one of the larger homes of some member of the congregation. There were no priests, for all believers are now priests.30 The worship was led by the Holy Spirit, rather than by a single individual.31 There were no golden furnishings, and the Lord’s Table took place around a table and a meal shared by the believers. There was no great pomp and circumstance here, but simple elements – bread and wine – which were symbols that reminded the believers of Christ’s sacrifice. Some may have been attracted by the “high church” feel of Old Covenant worship and unimpressed by the simplicity of New Testament worship. But the problem was (and is) that the Old Covenant, tabernacle worship, and Levitical priesthood could not remove sins and could not give one direct access to a holy God.
Let me try to illustrate by reminding my readers of a story I told years ago about a 1940 Ford pickup. My parents had purchased a very primitive fishing resort in Washington State. It came with a 1936 Ford pickup, which was not licensed to run on the highway, which ran only some of the time, and which had the driver’s side door removed (because the door handle had ceased to work). My father and I hitch-hiked to Portland, Oregon, where he managed to buy a 1940 Ford pickup. This one ran – did it run. It had smaller tires on the front, and larger tires on the back. It had a 1954 Ford v/8 engine (the first year that Ford put an overhead valve engine in any of its vehicles). It had a custom dual exhaust system – loud enough to impress a 14 or 15 year-old boy like me. And it was painted maroon with white scallops and pin striping.
It was a beautiful machine – the car of my dreams. There was only one problem: it was so beautiful that we would not use it for the purpose it was purchased. We needed a truck to haul fire wood and garbage. There was no way that I was going to defile that truck! And so it had to go. It was beautiful, but useless (for the purpose we needed it to function).
Israel’s worship was like that 1940 Ford pickup; it, too, was beautiful, but useless, for what needed to be done. Israel’s worship had priests and liturgy and gold furnishings, but it could not forgive sins, and it did not provide access to God. The law was focused on external purification and rituals, but it could not cleanse one from sin nor give a person a clean conscience. It could not perform the tasks that were essential, and thus it had to be replaced. The design of the tabernacle kept men apart from God, but our Lord Jesus came to men and provided a way for men to approach (draw near to) God. The shedding of animal blood may have achieved the ritual purification of external things, but it could not cleanse the conscience of its guilt. It was Christ’s death that did this.
All who have trusted in Jesus know that their sins have been forgiven, and they should experience the cleansing of their consciences. This will motivate both service and worship. We dare not seek to motivate men and women by means of guilt, once again defiling their consciences. We must rather appeal to grace, which produces gratitude, the true basis for worship and service.
As we approach the Christmas season, let us do so by appreciating what God has done for us in the person and work of Jesus Christ. In His incarnation, our Lord not only took on humanity – became a man (albeit a God-man) – and thus identified with men. Through His incarnation, our Lord was qualified to be the Passover Lamb of God whose death would atone for our sins, once for all. Thus He was also qualified to serve as our Great High Priest. God sought us in the person of Jesus, and by means of His death and resurrection, He has provided forgiveness for sins and access to intimate fellowship for all who believe in Him and accept His gift of salvation.
1 Copyright © 2008 by Robert L. Deffinbaugh. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 20 in the series, Near to the Heart of God – A Study of the Book of Hebrews, prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on December 7, 2008. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org
2 See Hebrews chapters 3 and 4.
25 This phrase “the good things to come” has been variously translated. The NET Bible, the NKJV and the NASB render it so as to indicate that the “good things” are yet to come. The ESV and the CSB render “the good things that have come.” The NIV translates the phrase “the good things that are already here.”
26 Some would not capitalize “Spirit” here, believing that the reference is to our Lord’s human spirit. I choose to differ with them.
28 It is possible that some may have mistakenly assumed that they could continue to trust in Christ while also turning back to live under the Old Covenant. The Book of Galatians informs us that this is impossible. There, as elsewhere, Paul made it clear that one must either trust in law-keeping or in Christ for righteousness and salvation (see Galatians 5:2-4; see also Acts 15:6-11).