Hebrews Chapter Nine Study Guide


There’s a heart-warming narrative about worship in Exodus 33:7-11. Shortly before the tabernacle was put into use, a “tent of meeting” was set up outside of the camp where “the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, just as a man speaks to his friend.” Joshua spent entire days there –basking in God’s presence. Everyone was invited.

Worship

The word worship originated in Old English with a concatenation of worth and ship –conveying that something of great value can be achieved when a man and God are joined together– as in a ship prepared for a voyage.

Now even the first covenant had regulations of divine worship and the earthly sanctuary. For there was a tabernacle prepared, the outer one, in which were the lampstand and the table and the sacred bread; this is called the holy place.

Behind the second veil there was a tabernacle which is called the Holy of Holies, having a golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, in which was a golden jar holding the manna, and Aaron’s rod which budded, and the tables of the covenant; and above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat; but of these things we cannot now speak in detail. (Hebrews 9:1-5)

The Tent

We all know the basic facts about, and the articles within the tabernacle. It was the Hebrews’ central gathering place for religious purposes. It’s where God came down to be with His people in a “tent” –a temporary place to live. Yet there’s also a magnificent understanding about worship to be gained from it.

Three times a year the people assembled for celebrations. One of them began with the Feast of Trumpets, then nine days later was the Day of Atonement, then in five more days came the Feast of Tabernacles (or Booths, or Ingathering). That’s when each family constructed, and lived in a shelter outside of their normal living place. It foreshadowed Jesus’ dwelling in a mortal body while He was away from heaven. Believers who celebrate the feast today consider it to be a clue that life in this body is temporary –and they will join Him one day, leaving the earthly things behind.

The Holy Spirit is signifying this, that the way into the holy place has not yet been disclosed while the outer tabernacle is still standing, which is a symbol for the present time.

Accordingly both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make the worshiper perfect in conscience, since they relate only to food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until a time of reformation. (Hebrews 9:8-10)

Several hundred years after Moses, David designed, and then Solomon built a temple to take over for the tabernacle. Their goal was to continue the traditions of the tabernacle, but to make God’s dwelling place superb –surpassing the luxury of their own stately palace. Later the Babylonians destroyed it when they seized the city and dragged away the people. A replacement temple was built during Ezra’s time –after the people returned from exile. Hundreds of years more passed and then King Herod (of crucifixion infamy) massively overhauled that meager structure –adding to its grandeur and to his legacy.

During those tumultuous times the ark of the covenant, the table for showbread, the lampstand and other items from the tabernacle were lost. Replacements for some of them were made. Although exquisite, without the original items, Herod’s Temple was nothing more than “the outer tabernacle.” Correspondingly, that “kingdom of priests” was without the presence of God so it too was only a shell without real substance.

The temple was still standing when this Letter to the Hebrews was written. Its destruction by the Romans happened in 70 AD –and then “the time of reformation” began. But the Hebrews weren’t aware that the transition to a new priesthood had taken place –it had “not yet been disclosed” to them.

The Picture

When describing the tabernacle’s contents, verse five said “but of these things we cannot now speak in detail.” The layouts of both the tabernacle and the temple relate Jesus’ purpose for being here. Even their east-to-west orientations show the beginning-to-end sequence of His life from His birth announced by angels –woven into the entrance tapestry; to His death –the bronze altar for burnt sacrifices; to His washing away sin –the bronze basin; to His earthly ministry –the holy place; to the offering of His blood in heaven –the Holy of Holies.

To construe worship, rules were given for the priests to perform their duties. They wore special garments and were ceremonially cleansed before entering the courtyard. They washed at the basin and offered sacrifices at the altar. Then they could go into the holy place. Once inside they kept the lights of the lampstand lit, put fresh bread on the table and ensured that the sweet aroma of incense filled the air. The “second veil” blocked them from actually approaching God in the next room.

Only the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies –and then only on the Day of Atonement. Inside was the ark. It was a box made of wood and it had a gold cover with angels sitting on top. That was the mercy seat on which blood was spilled annually for the payment of sin. Within the ark was the gold jar of manna –evidence of God’s sufficient provision. There were the Ten Commandments –the basic tenets of the priestly covenant –and proof of mankind’s rebellious, untrusting ways. And there was Aaron’s rod that had been cut from a living tree, then miraculously budded, produced flowers and bore ripe almonds. It showed that God chose Aaron to head the priesthood.

This picture only hints at what was necessary for God’s priests to be productively joined with Him. First, the high priest had to prepare the way. Even then the rest of the priests couldn’t have direct access to Him –to personally know and understand Him. Nonetheless, they did what the Law required.

Worship Fulfilled

But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, 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, having obtained eternal redemption.

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, 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? (Hebrews 9:11-14)

Jesus took His own blood into heaven with His resurrected body and completed the transition. In the past, the Levitical Priests approached God by going through the courtyard. Now the priests of the New Covenant go to God freely. Days of rituals and special clothing are over –God replaces those symbols with a new heart. Washing away sin was completed –He has fully cleansed everyone from all unrighteousness. He doesn’t want gifts brought to an altar –He merely wants His followers to be joined with Him.

The old priests served inside the holy place with earthly utensils. The new priests personally know Jesus and tell the world about Him. There’s no stumbling in the darkness –He is the light who reveals God’s way. Fellowship is guaranteed –He is the bread. Mediation is done by Him –His words are the pleasant aroma.

The priests of old remained separated from God –they in the holy place and He in the Holy of Holies. The new priests have direct access to Him because Jesus passed through death, went into heaven and the obstructing veil was torn in two. He is the Savior –God’s Son who came in a human body. Mercy comes from His throne –the heavenly version of the slab in His tomb where two angels folded His blood-stained clothes. He is the bread of life –the manna from heaven. He is the fulfillment of the Law –the One that it predicted was coming. He is the new life –like Aaron’s rod that had been alive, died and then lived again to bear fruit.

John’s gospel explains such a life of worship in terms of being unified with God in presence and purpose. Jesus is in the Father and the Father is in Him –and we are in Them (John 17:18-21).

Ashes of a Red Heifer

The “ashes of a heifer” are only mentioned in passing (Hebrews 9:13-14), but the source is worth looking into. Numbers 19 specifies that a cow was to be selected –one without blemish, with all of its hairs red and never yoked. After she was slaughtered, some of her blood was sprinkled toward the front of the tabernacle and the rest of her (including the dung within her) was completely burned outside of the camp. Some cedar wood, hyssop and scarlet cloth accompanied her in the fire.

Afterwards, her ashes were collected and mixed with spring water. That water was specially maintained. If anyone came in contact with a dead person, it was sprinkled on them for a ceremonial cleansing. Unlike other animals which were routinely slain for their blood, her sacrifice was intended to be a lasting, one-time occurrence for all who needed it.

The sacrificial death of the Son of God is foreshadowed throughout Scriptures by the killing of a male sheep or goat or bull. But here it’s the death of a female. She represents the Son of Man –the other side of Jesus’ heritage.

The symbols are the same for both. He died for everyone –the sacrifice was outside the camp. He took on all sin –totally red. He’s perfect –without blemish. He didn’t follow rules to be righteous –was never yoked. His death came on the cross –the cedar wood. He was beaten –the hyssop. Believers are united with Him by the blood-stained clothes –the scarlet cloth. The salvation that God offers is the combination of Jesus’ death and His resurrected life –ashes mixed with spring water.

Putting it into perspective… His sacrifice as the Son of God is what allows people to become heirs to the kingdom –to receive eternal life. This reference to His sacrifice as the Son of Man helps them identify with Him –to relate with Him –to trust Him as their Savior. Being sprinkled with this water represents the believer’s baptism into Christ which is a continual washing from indwelling sin –the dung. They’re already perfect –righteous– in the Father’s eyes. His one-time death makes His “worshipers perfect in conscience” for even their most vile ways.

The Last Will and Testament

The script governing the Hebrew’s message –the Law– provided a wonderful portrayal of Jesus’ coming. But He came and proved that He was the One, the Messiah, the Son of God, Jehovah’s Salvation. He was the Joshua who would lead those who believed Him into the kingdom. The Hebrews’ task as priests under that Old Covenant was over.

For this reason He is the mediator of a new covenant, so that, since a death has taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were committed under the first covenant, those who have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance.

For where a covenant is, there must of necessity be the death of the one who made it. For a covenant is valid only when men are dead, for it is never in force while the one who made it lives. (Hebrews 9:15-17)

A last will and testament (more commonly called a will –and here called a covenant) legally documents what will be inherited from a person after he dies. Chapter eight contained a bookmark to Jeremiah’s prophecy –a record of Jesus’ will that was written long before His death (Jeremiah 31:31-34).

We’ve read several passages stating that His death totally paid for sin. But His will (the New Covenant) also established a new priesthood –of which He is the High Priest. Obviously that covenant couldn’t go into effect until after He died –that’s how wills work.

Therefore even the first covenant was not inaugurated without blood. For when every commandment had been spoken by Moses to all the people according to the Law, he took the blood of the calves and the goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, saying, “This is the blood of the covenant which God commanded you.” And in the same way he sprinkled both the tabernacle and all the vessels of the ministry with the blood. (Hebrews 9:18-21)

The quote here is a reference to Exodus 24:3-8. It’s the account of putting the Old Covenant into effect to establish the Hebrews as a priesthood. Moses sprinkled the blood from each tribe’s sacrifice on the covenant and on the people. This was repeated annually to remind them of their agreement to show the world that a perfect sacrifice was needed to redeem life from its archenemy death.

And according to the Law, one may almost say, all things are cleansed with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. (Hebrews 9:22)

The Law pointed to God’s cleansing –forgiving– everyone through the death of His Son. His one-time forgiveness is what broke the otherwise never-ending cycle of judgment, guilt, shame and feeble efforts to apologize for behaviors (sin and death).

Therefore it was necessary for the copies of the things in the heavens to be cleansed with these, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these.

For Christ did not enter a holy place made with hands, a mere copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us; nor was it that He would offer Himself often, as the high priest enters the holy place year by year with blood that is not his own. (Hebrews 9:23-25)

Repeated sacrifices were the norm for the Old Covenant Hebrews –day-after-day, year-after-year– more animal sacrifices were offered. But with His one sacrifice for sins it’s done forever.

Otherwise, He would have needed to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now once at the consummation of the ages He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.

And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment, so Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him. (Hebrews 9:26-28)

How many times did the Son of God have to be born, live among mankind, and then die for their sins? Verse 27 says it was once. He isn’t coming back to provide more forgiveness for sins. The purpose of His second coming is to take believers with Him as an adoring groom takes his lovely bride into his arms.

Where Is the Altar of Incense?

I’m intrigued by apparent inconsistencies in the Bible. I say apparent because there’s always a disguised message in them. Such is the case for the placement of the altar of incense here in chapter nine.

Moses was told to carefully follow the heavenly pattern that he was shown for the tabernacle. The detailed instructions are recorded in Exodus 40:17-28. There the golden altar is described as being set up in the holy place. Ordinary priests, including John the Baptist’s father, Zacharias, offered incense on this altar in the morning and evening –at the same times that the burnt sacrifices were being offered outside on the bronze altar.

Behind the second veil there was a tabernacle which is called the Holy of Holies, having a golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant… (Hebrews 9:3-4)

The priests couldn’t perform their daily duties if the altar was inside the Holy of Holies since only the high priest was allowed in there –and then only annually.

But this Hebrews passage places the golden altar of incense inside the Holy of Holies where the ark of the covenant belonged. Is it an error in the original text of New Testament? I think not.

Remember, the tabernacle with its furnishings and east-to-west orientation is symbolic of Jesus’ life. The holy place symbolizes His ministry in a human body. While here on earth, He showed that He was the light of men in this dark world (the lampstand); He made fellowship with His Father available to men (the showbread) and He offered prayers for Himself and His followers (the incense).

On the other hand, heaven is represented by the Holy of Holies. That’s where He –the true ark– is now. And it’s quite reasonable for the passage to place the altar of incense there too since that’s the home of His never-ceasing intercession.