|Looking to Jesus: Ministry in the Heavenly Tabernacle (Hebrews 9:1-10)
Looking to Jesus: Ministry in the Heavenly Tabernacle
Minister’s Summary: Our high priest who is on duty both continuously and forever is ministering in the heavenly sanctuary. The earthly things of Aaron’s ministry in a perishable structure fade by comparison to the realities of Christ’s intercessory role for his people now.
This is a rather short text where the preacher reminds his hearers about God’s work in the Mosaic tabernacle. He reminds of the articles within the tabernacle and the priestly functions within that tabernacle.
The text sets up the contrasts that the preacher will draw in the next section (Hebrews 9:11-10:18). It is the beginning of that argument. But before he can make the argument that the work of Christ in the heavenly tabernacle is superior (better), he must lay the conceptual ground of revived memories of God’s work through the Mosaic tabernacle.
The function of this text in the argument, then, is memory. But it is exalted memory. It is not the memory of something bad, false or legalistic. It is the memory of the exalted ministry of Old Testament priests. It is the memory of God’s dwelling place among his people. The text must not be approached as if it were a “put down,” but as an appreciative memory of God’s work in the tabernacle.
1. Hebrews 9:1-5.
This section describes the tabernacle itself. It was a tent with specific regulations and articles of furniture. As the preacher almost clinically describes the furniture, it is important to remember the theological significance that is assumed for each.
The tabernacle was the dwelling place of God for Israel (Leviticus 26:11-12). Indeed, it was a “holy place” (a rectangle) followed by the “holiest place” or “Most Holy Place” (a square). It was holy because of the presence of God. The preacher reminds us that it was a place of special significance with the descriptions of “holy” and the detailed enumeration of the furniture (see the Navipress book for some specifics on this furniture).
The lamp stand was the light of God in the tabernacle, just as God was light in the darkness for Israel (cf. Exodus 25:31-40). The Bread is the bread of table and presence (Exodus 25:23-30). Eating the bread was eating in God’s presence and a matter of fellowship with God. It was a thank offering for God’s provision.
The Golden Altar of incense symbolized the prayers of God’s people, and also filled the Most Holy Place with smoke as a symbol of God’s presence (Exodus 30:1-10). The location of the altar is problematic. Exodus 30:6; 40:26 indicate that it stood in the Holy Place in front of the curtain. However, it appears that at other times it was placed within the Most Holy Place (1 Kings 6:20, 22) and it appears that it was understood to stand there in early Judaism by some.
The Ark of the Covenant is especially significant (Exodus 25:10-16). It is the presence God among his people; it was no mere symbol of God’s presence. It was the place where God chose to center his presence among his people (Exodus 25:22). The ark was God’s resting place (1 Chronicles 28:2; 2 Chronicles 6:40-42). The articles in the ark represented God’s faithfulness and covenant with his people (Exodus 16:32-34; Numbers 17:10-11; Deuteronomy 10:1-2). The cherubim, angelic figures, surrounded God’s throne. They testify to his holy presence. Indeed, the Ark of the Covenant is God’s footstool. His feet sit on the ark as his presence fills the Most Holy Place and from there the whole earth.
The preacher specifics the atonement cover, which suites his ultimate purpose of discussing atonement in Hebrews 9-10 (Exodus 25:17-22). It is the traditional “mercy seat.” The lid of the ark was sprinkled with blood on the day of atonement (Leviticus 16:14-15).
2. Hebrews 9:6-10
This second section focuses on the priestly ministry in the tabernacle. The priests daily entered the Holy Place to minister in the morning and evening (Exodus 27:20-21; 30:7-8; and once a week to replace the bread; cf. Leviticus 24:8-9), but the only the High Priest entered the Most Holy Place to minister and that only once a year (Leviticus 16). The High Priest entered on the Day of Atonement to make a sacrifice for sin, including his own sins. Thus, the High Priest entered only through blood—only by the cleansing and atoning element of blood could the High Priest enter the presence of God.
But this cleansing was external, according to the preacher. The blood of animals was only sufficient for an external cleansing. It did not cleanse the conscience. The preacher is not against external rituals, nor is he depreciating them. Rather, he is only recognizing that the tabernacle system was a copy of the original pattern (the heavenly tabernacle). He recognizes that animal sacrifices are not sufficient to cleanse people from their sins. Thus, the tabernacle ministry and regulations (including food, drink and regular immersions in water [the term “washing” is the term baptism, which refer to Levitical washings for ritual cleansing in the Mosaic system, cf. Leviticus 14:8-9; 15:5-11,13,16,18,21-22,27; 16:4,24,26,28; 17:15; 22:6]) served external functions. Literally, they could not “perfect” the human conscience.
The preacher reminds his hearers of the earthly tabernacle in order to point them to something better. But we must approach this point with care.
The preacher does not rehearse this point as a “put down” of the tabernacle. He does not denigrate the tabernacle ministry or treat it with contempt. Instead, he honors it. He reminds us that it was a “Holy Place” with a “Most Holy Place.” It was the presence of God among his people. It was God’s gracious presence through atonement (“atonement cover”). Instead of lowering the meaning of the tabernacle, the preacher reminds them of its meaning and place. He gives it a high meaning in order to point to something higher!
God placed his presence among his people at the tabernacle (Leviticus 26:11-12). He dwelt among them, and the tabernacle was his dwelling place. As a holy place, it was approached with reverence and holiness. Consequently, it had worship regulations or liturgical rituals. These rituals conveyed the holiness of God and guided the approach of humans into God’s presence.
Americans do not understand the holiness of rituals. Our sitcoms constantly use the name of God as a synonym for “Wow!” as in “Oh, my God!” We do not understand holiness. Instead, we have made the holy mundane instead of making all of life holy.
However, by rehearsing these details for his audience, the preacher appeals to their sense of awe, reverence and holiness. The tabernacle was a mighty work of God among his people. It was his gracious presence.
But it was a copy, a shadow. It was patterned after the heavenly tabernacle. It pointed to something beyond itself. It was temporary because it was a copy. The original has now been unveiled and made accessible.
Theologically, I would emphasize several points. First, the dwelling of God is now in the hearts of human beings (cf. “law in the heart” of Jeremiah 31 in last week’s lesson). God now dwells in his people; we are the temple of God (2 Corinthians 6:14-16 which quotes Leviticus 26:11-12). The function of the Mosaic tabernacle has now found fulfillment by God’s indwelling of us by his Spirit.
Second, the ritual regulations in the Mosaic tabernacle presented a barrier between God and his people. Only priests could enter the Holy Place. Only the High Priest could enter the Most Holy Place. God, though dwelling among his people, was still separated from them. There was a distance between God and his people. However, in Christ this distance has been overcome as we enter into the Most Holy Place by the blood of Christ (Hebrews 10:19-25). We enter the throne room of God through prayer (Hebrews 4:16). The distance has been broken down. Nevertheless, we still wait to see God face to face when we will see him in the new heaven and new earth when God will fully dwell with his people (Revelation 21:1-4; 22:1-6).
Third, though the Mosaic tabernacle was the presence of God among his people, the regulations (including animal sacrifices) were only copies and thus could not fully cleanse and perfect the people of God. However, the blood of Christ can, and this is the subject of the rest of chapter nine.
The preacher provides strength for the journey by pointing his hearers to something better. What Israel had was good—God was present in his Holy Place, but what God has now provided is better. If we let go of this, there is nothing left. If we forsake Christ, there is no other sacrifice for sin. Jesus has brought us into the heavenly tabernacle, and if we forsake the journey there is nowhere else to go.
It would be good to detail some of the history of the tabernacle and go over the theological function of the furniture. The class could read Exodus 25 and other appropriate texts. There is a value here because we need to appreciate how important the tabernacle was to the people of Israel. We especially need to emphasize the holiness and presence of God in the tabernacle. If we can inculcate into our classes an understanding of that holiness and presence, perhaps we will be able to see this text in a clearer light as the preacher reminds his audience of what we perhaps do not see clearly.
Consequently, the history is important as we give ourselves a sense of the exalted status of the tabernacle. It is not a negative in the history of God with his people, but the reality of his presence among them and a pointer to God’s fuller presence among his people in Christ by the indwelling of the Spirit. We can then call ourselves to holiness in the light of the fact of God’s indwelling presence among us.
In teaching this text, then, I would move from history to theology. On the theological point I would move to application in the context of our holiness. Whereas we tend to turn the holy into the mundane, the presence of God in our lives should transform the mundane into the holy. The tabernacle reminds us of that and points us to the fuller presence of God among us today. We are God’s tabernacle, and we are God’s light in the world. We are his presence.