Jesus' Greater Priesthood and Sacrifice

March 25, 2018 Series: Hebrews Scripture: Hebrews 9:1-12 by Chris Strevel

The Spirit teaches us throughout this letter that fear, lethargy, and unbelief are overcome by clearer views of Jesus Christ and his mediatorial work in heaven. Facing persecution for their faith, these first-century Jewish believers were thinking of running back to Judaism and the temple, but what good would that do them? Jesus made that worship and priesthood obsolete and useless by his perfect sacrifice (8:13). Would a lifeless religion save them from the hostility of the world and give them peace of conscience? What they needed was power (1 Cor. 4:20), and this could be found only in the new and living way Jesus has opened for us into heaven, so that we may call upon God at all times for mercy and strength. We do not think of turning back to Judaism today, but we look for other ways to conquer our fears and for safe refuges from the stormy winds of societal change and revolution. The Spirit of truth says to us the same thing he said to these early believers: see the glory of Jesus Christ and hold fast to him. No external religion and ceremonies, no ancient traditions or supposed safe places will save us from our particular troubles. We shall pass through the fire, for the Lord will test our faith. We must walk by faith in the Son of God and draw near to the heavenly throne he has opened to us by his greater priesthood and perfect sacrifice. He will give us strength to endure and to overcome the tribulations through which we must pass before entering into his eternal kingdom. 

The Old Covenant Worship (vv. 1-6)

The early church struggled with the transition from the old to the new covenant, from a Jewish to a Jew-Gentile in one body church. For Paul the Jew to speak of the old covenant as decayed and ready to disappear was astounding and deeply troubling to many. Even where the abolition of the older covenant was perceived as inevitable, it was nonetheless challenging. The Jews practically equated faith, salvation, and the covenant with being or become a Jew. The thought that a non-Jew could enter God’s kingdom without embracing Jewishness was unthinkable to most. In wanting to return to the old and decaying covenant, these believers faced a danger greater than persecution. They were in danger of losing Christ. His coming meant that the old order had served its purpose. The Scriptures were fulfilled. To return to the Jewish priesthood and sacrifices, for the second temple was standing when this letter was written, would be a direct rejection of Christ’s priesthood and sacrifice. Paul was zealous for the salvation of his countrymen. He knew that an accurate understanding of the relation between the old and new covenants was vital for the strength, perseverance, and forward progress of Christ’s church.

In saying this, Paul did not depreciate the divinely intended purpose of the older covenant and its worship. This is the reason for his brief reflection upon the tabernacle worship. Note that he is not describing the arrangement or furniture of Solomon’s Temple or the rebuilt temple under Zerubbabel but the tabernacle as it existed, say at Shiloh under Samuel. It had a legitimate function to fulfill and truly set forth Christ to come. Its worship was commanded – a divine service. It had a physical or worldly tabernacle in which to carry out the worship. The tabernacle was the visible symbol and pledge of God’s abiding presence with his people. That tabernacle was divided into two main areas. Upon entering the curtain door, the priest arrived at the “sanctuary” (v. 3), or the Holy Place. The golden lampstand was found there, which symbolized the church as the light of the world because she holds forth Jesus Christ (Rev. 1:12-13,20). The table and showbread were also there, which reminded the people that the “earth was the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,” as well as his pledge to provide for their every need and to bring them into friendly communion with him.

Passing through the second veil, the high priest entered the Most Holy Place. Qumiath,rion (thumiasterion) is translated either golden censer or altar of incense. It is inconceivable that Paul would have neglected to mention the altar in a summation of the leading tabernacle furniture. The reason some prefer censer is that the positioning seems to be wrong. It is clear that the altar of intense was in front of the curtain leading to the Most Holy Place, not behind the curtain. But Paul does not speak in terms of exact position but of a relationship between the incense altar and the curtain. It is clear that the altar pertained to that curtain. The priest dare not enter without aromatic incense, which symbolized the prayers of the saints (Rev. 8:3-4) and even more the prayers of our Savior that open heaven to us.

The center piece of the Most Holy Place was the Ark of the Covenant, which was made of acacia wood and overlaid with gold. Placed inside were a golden pot filled with the manna from the wilderness, Aaron’s rod that budded, symbolizing God’s acceptance of his priesthood, and the two tablets of stone. At the dedication of Solomon’s temple, only the two tables are mentioned, but the Spirit is describing the original outfitting of the tabernacle. The top portion of the Ark of the Covenant was the mercy seat, upon which the high priest sprinkled the blood from the sacrifice on the Day of Atonement. The cherubim with outspread wings above undoubtedly symbolized the interest of the whole angelic hosts in the mercy of God to wretched sinners (1 Pet. 1:12). It should be noted in our day of great ignorance, that the two tables, sometimes called or described as the tables of the covenant (Ex. 34:28; Deut. 4:13; 1 Kings 8:9), were under the mercy seat and thus covered in the blood. There was never in the older covenant even a hypothetical possibility of salvation on the basis of man’s obedience to God. We had already broken the covenant of works, and there was no going back, only forward by God’s mercy, covered with the blood of the sacrifice he provided to cover our sins. Under that blood, we may walk safely as his forgiven people and strengthened with might by his Spirit to live obedient lives. This old covenant promise typified by the two tables in the Ark, is now our reality in the finished work of Christ and renewing grace of the Spirit.

The Weakness of the Old Covenant Worship (vv. 6-10)

The Way to God’s Gracious Presence Restricted (vv. 6-8)

As rich as the symbolism of the tabernacle is to us, all the light is read backwards. In the light of Christ, the function and significance of the old covenant worship is made clear. In the old covenant days, their symbolism was grasped dimly, but sufficiently by God’s almighty power to create and sustain saving faith in his elect and to set forth to the visible church his presence and promise of grace. The point in bringing them up here is to establish that there was a divinely established worship under the old covenant economy. That Christ made it obsolete should not have surprised them, for its weaknesses were evident. Three of them are here given. First, the Levitical priests regularly, daily ministered in the first room of the tabernacle, the Holy Place (v. 6), but they were heavily restricted from entering into the second or inmost room of the tabernacle, the Most Holy Place. They could enter there only once each year, and they and the people had to be cleansed with blood.

What did the Spirit of God intend to communicate by this arrangement? Notice his mention here as intimately involved in the first stage of redemption, the old covenant. It was the Spirit of Christ by which the prophets spoke (2 Pet. 1:10), and the Spirit even then was testifying of Christ and setting him forth through those types and ceremonies and sacrifices, even by the furniture of the tabernacle. But what was he saying? You can enter, but you are so filthy you must bathe in blood as a sign of your need of a Savior. You can enter, but only once each year. You can enter, but the way to full and free fellowship with God is not yet open or clearly revealed. The way into the Holiest, which signifies not simply the Holy of Holies but more fully God’s gracious presence and fellowship with his people, was so severely restricted that it was practically barred. It was not even clear what would be required to remove this barrier (v. 8). Christ was announced to them in these things and his work signified in the sacrifices and types, but all was very dim in comparison to the light we now possess. The arrangement was glorious, and the only light then to be found in the world, but it was a fading glory.

The Sinner’s Conscience Left Imperfect (v. 9)

For that time, therefore, these things were a figure or parable of the coming work of Jesus Christ. Gifts and sacrifices were offered, but those sacrifices were unable to perfect the worshipper because they could not cleanse his conscience. Perfection, a theme that runs throughout the letter (2:10; 5:9; 7:19; 9:9,11; 10:1), does not mean moral perfection or realized sanctification. It refers to that state of liberty before God that he wants his redeemed children to possess objectively through the finished work of Jesus Christ and to feel subjectively by the sealing and testifying of the Spirit of adoption. God wants his children close to him, to draw near to him with assurance of his favor, pardon, and assistance. Perfection is thus all the spiritual blessings in the heavenlies that Christ has now brought to us and the historical place of new covenant faith and living before the face of God. We lost this in Eden, and it was our fallen lot to be without Christ, without hope, and without God in the world (Eph. 2:12). God drew near to his old covenant people through the worship, priesthood, and sacrifices he commanded, but the types could not perfect the worshipper. They could not give a sense of God’s fatherly favor and gracious acceptance.

There is a profound reason for this. God made us in his image. Conscience is the indelible, inner witness in each man that testifies to God’s existence, our accountability to him, and our liability to judgment for our sins. Nothing will satisfy and silence conscience but that which silences and satisfies the sword of our Judge. Our conscience and God’s tribunal are inseparably bound. Thus, the old covenant sacrifices – and everything was bathed with blood – promised a reconciled God, but those sacrifices could not give the reconciliation. They pointed to it. The worshipper went and offered and trusted. The repetition of the sacrifices reminded him of his guilt; they could not take the guilt away. This is the most significant barrier raised and institutionalized in the old covenant. It was one of the “tutelages” under which God kept his people and the one of the reasons for the giving of the law (Gal. 3:19-24). A grieved conscience kept the faithful longing for full redemption. The types told them a better day was coming, and in that way provided hope and relief, but David and the prophets frequently testified that “sacrifice and offering you do not require.” What? He required them, but they were not sufficient. Something better was coming. “Lo, I come,” the Messiah promised (Ps. 40:6-8), and he has now come to us!

The Worship an External and Temporary Imposition (v. 10)

And for this reason, Abraham and his true seed looked forward to Christ’s day (John 8:56). How could an external form of worship consisting of meat and drink, dietary laws and various offerings, make the conscience perfect? How could ceremonial washings – notice the use of baptizo in a context that included sprinkling – cleanse our sins? These were fleshly ordinances, fleshly not meaning sinful but earthly, of this earth, and therefore weak and decaying. They were imposed upon God’s old covenant people to keep them in readiness for the Messiah. They pointed to him and his saving work, but they could not atone for sin, effect true reconciliation with God, or satisfy the sinner’s conscience. They were temporary, until the time of reformation or straitening. The old covenant thus prefigured and foretold its own demise, and only the prejudice of the unbelieving Jews prevented them from embracing the Lord Jesus Christ when he came into his own. Those who believed the Scriptures of the Old Testament joyfully embraced him (John 5:47), as we do, since he has brought “life and immorality to light through the gospel” (2 Tim. 1:10), this glorious day of reformation in which we now live.

The Entrance of Christ into the Heavenly Sanctuary (vv. 11-12)

His Priesthood Better: Lasting and Effectual

In the midst of this great weakness and to fulfill his promise and to bring in everlasting righteousness, God sent his Son into the world. He is come to us as “high priest of good things to come.” He has already brought to us many good things (Eph. 1:3), especially full remission of sins, justifying righteousness through his sufferings and obedience, and reconciliation with God. He is our righteousness and wisdom (1 Cor. 1:24). The world cannot contain all the good things that we have in Christ – peace in every trial, hope in every season, an open door to heaven that no man can close. All the fruits of righteousness are secured now and glorification later through his sanctifying and indwelling Spirit. Because his priesthood is lasting and effectual, there are more good things coming. He will never die. His endless life empowers him to appear continually in the presence of God for us. He will secure us forever. He is praying and will make sure that we are soon brought to be with him where he is, that we may behold his glory, be changed into his glory, and be his perfect church, without spot or blemish. Unlike the old covenant which had only a fading glory, Jesus Christ and his new covenant have a growing glory that will fill all things

His Tabernacle Better: His Own Body

He came for us with a greater and more perfect tabernacle. This tabernacle is his body – “A body thou hast prepared me” (Heb. 10:5). It was not made with human hands or of man’s building; it was prepared by the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35) for the specific and sole purpose of being our Mediator, the Lamb of God, the Redeemer of God’s elect. He gave his flesh for the life of the world (John 6:51). God now tabernacles with men in his Son (Rev. 21:3). The eternal Word became flesh and “tabernacled among us” (John 1:14). If we were to be brought to perfection, to full peace and fellowship with God, a tabernacle we must have that is not a symbol of God’s presence, as under the old covenant, but the very dwelling of God with us. The Son of God incarnate is this tabernacle, this indwelling of God with us by the Spirit. Jesus’ incomparable worthiness as God’s beloved and eternal Son makes his sacrifice availing. The Levitical priests entered a tabernacle made with human hands; our Savior enters heaven as the living tabernacle of God with us, the God-man. To return to Judaism would be like forsaking the most beautiful palace to live in a burned out hut.

His Entrance Better: With His Own Blood

When he took upon himself this body, entered this tabernacle in order to redeem us, he never intended to use the blood of goats and calves. Oceans of blood were spilled, but they pointed forward to the perfect and precious blood of Christ. This is perhaps the single highest evil of abandoning Christ in favor of Judaism. Such a person is saying, “Give me the goat blood; I reject Christ’s.” Christ’s blood is precious because he is the incarnate Son of God. His blood is availing because he is the sinless Lamb of God. His blood is acceptable because he is God’s chosen and elect, his Suffering Servant, the One in whom his soul delighted. O, come to this fountain, sinner, and be cleansed. Christ suffered in the flesh and spilled his blood so that divine justice would be satisfied and the sinner freely admitted to heaven as a reconciled, redeemed, and forgiven child of God. Those who have known Christ best, have thought most clearly about his person and work, have trembled most before his cross, have spilled their own blood refusing to dishonor or deny his, all unite to say, “Make much of the precious blood of Jesus Christ.” Never should we think that anything else will appease the trembling chords of conscience but the key that opens heaven’s gate. This is the blood of Jesus Christ.

His Holy Place Better: God’s Gracious Presence

Two more of Christ’s superiorities we find to settle our faith and fill us with resolve to hold fast to him. The Levitical priests entered into the “made with hands” tabernacle to make propitiation; Jesus Christ entered once into the holy place – the immediate presence of the all-glorious, holy, and just God. The Levitical high priests entered yearly, for their sacrifices were insufficient. Jesus Christ entered once into the presence of the HOLY, HOLY, HOLY God and was cursed for us. God satisfied, the Judge propitiated, means that our curse is removed, our forgiveness and peace obtained, and heaven opened. We can draw near, must draw near, if we appreciate what our Savior has done, with full confidence. You feel that you are a great sinner, and well you should, but Jesus Christ is a much greater Savior. Can we doubt that the old covenant is now obsolete? It served its purpose. There must be no turning back, no picking through the dust pile of worn out ceremonies or appeal to a religion bereft of its temple, its priesthood, and sacrifice – destroyed by the risen Christ, stripped of its former dignity, the old obsolete so that all may flock to Christ, including one day the Jews, whose salvation will be like life from the dead. Let us pray that they embrace him soon.

His Sacrifice Better: Obtained Our Eternal Redemption

Imagine God ever saying to any Levitical high priest, even to Aaron – stop sacrificing. It is finished. I am satisfied. He said this when his Son entered the heavenly sanctuary with his own blood. Jesus shouted this with a loud voice! There was more going on that dark day on Calvary than simply the taunting and injustices of the Jews and cruelties of the Romans. When Jesus Christ stood condemned unjustly before the earthly tribunal, Pilate’s verdict was a testimony to his sinlessness. But he stood before another tribunal. He entered another courtroom – heaven’s. And there, he suffered righteously, according to the will of his Father, the Just for the unjust, in order to bring us to God. His appearance there was no accident but the long-planned mediation for sinners before a holy and just God. And there, by pouring out his blood – not that he took his actual blood to heaven – but by his worthy appearance there as our substitute, having obeyed his Father unto death, it was finished. Everlasting righteousness was secured. The Father said – no more sacrifices. Redemption is obtained – notice the historically finished verb tense. This also implies the securing of actual redemption, not the potential of salvation if man will be exercise his will.  Redemption is applied individually to every believer upon the exercise of his faith in Jesus and repentance toward God, but redemption was definitely obtained, acquired, and purchased for Christ’s sheep that day upon Calvary. Our Savior was summoned to appear before the heavenly tribunal, and he made his soul an offering for sin for us. When he poured out his soul unto death, our Father acquitted, forgave, and reconciled us to himself. Hallelujah, what a Savior!

And what is redemption? About this everyone who would have a share in Christ’s sacrifice must understand. Redemption is deliverance through the payment of a price, a ransom price. You and I were bound, condemned sinners, about to be pushed into everlasting hell, cut off from the life-giving and comfortable presence and fellowship of God. Fully we deserved this, as every man who has the slightest honesty readily confesses. Yes, we are Barabbas. We have committed murder against God, against man, against God’s law. If possible, we would have killed God to preserve our right to live as we please. But he is rich in mercy. He crushed his Son and extracted from him the purchase price of our liberty, yes, liberty – from sin and judgment, from the roaring and trembling of a guilty conscience that echoed the condemning gavel of the righteous Judge. And Jesus Christ came forward and took our death penalty upon himself. He has delivered us. We are his, brought with the price of his blood (1 Cor. 6:20). Let us never think of ourselves again as being our own – that we have a right to think as we want, go where we want, be with whom we want, treat others as we want, believe what we wish. Jesus Christ has purchased us by his price of his life-blood, emptying his veins so that we would be forgiven. Let us ever after live consecrated to him.