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Bible Commentaries
Hebrews 9

Layman's Bible CommentaryLayman's Bible Commentary

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Verses 1-5

The Old Tabernacle (9:1-5)

The author, by implication, has already dealt a telling blow to the effectiveness of the old Tabernacle by speaking of it as merely "a copy and shadow of the heavenly sanctuary" (Hebrews 8:5). He now describes this Tabernacle with a view to pointing out certain features which suggest its "obsolete" nature.

With some detail he describes, and quite accurately indeed, the construction and furniture of the "earthly sanctuary" which traditionally had been set up by Moses in the wilderness and which is generally called the "tabernacle" (vs. 2, see margin) to distinguish it from the Temple (Solomon’s, Zerubbabel’s, and Herod’s). For its description of the sanctuary Hebrews depends upon Exodus 25, 26, according to which it was divided into two tabernacles or tents, in the first ("outer one") of which were to be found "the lampstand and the table and the bread of the Presence." This tent (called "the Holy Place") also contained the golden altar of incense, although as the author suggests, this golden altar actually pertained to "the Holy of Holies" or inner tent (vss. 3-5) . The purpose of the golden altar was for burning the incense which arose like a sweet savor and passed over the "second curtain" and so into the Holy of Holies and before the "mercy seat" (see Exodus 30:1-10). In the Holy of Holies was "the ark of the covenant," which, according to one tradition at least, contained the historic items listed in verse 4. We should probably understand that the "cherubim of glory" stood on either side of the Ark and spread their wings over the "mercy seat" or representation of God’s throne which formed the cover of the Ark (see Exodus 25:10-22).

"Of these things," the author remarks, "we cannot now speak in detail" (vs. 5). Such details as he mentions are merely to show that "the first covenant had regulations for worship" which were adapted to its function (vs. 1). It is only as we pass on into the next section (vss. 6-10) that we discover the author’s motive in representing the details of the sanctuary as he has done. His argument has reference to the presence of "the second curtain" (vs. 3) hung between the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies. And his point is that as long as this division existed between the two tents or tabernacles, there could be no real fellowship between God and man.

The question has long been debated as to why Hebrews nowhere mentions Herod’s Temple as standing on Mount Zion in Jerusalem but rather chooses, for purpose of comparison between the Old Covenant and the New, to speak of the Tabernacle set up in the wilderness. It has been argued that this is evidence of the late date of the letter, which on this assumption was not written until well after the destruction of Jerusalem with its Temple in a.d. 70. This argument, however, is no longer valid; Judaism had already, before the First Jewish War (a.d. 66-70), begun to break away from the Temple worship in Jerusalem. Sometime after the Exile, the synagogue had sprung up, particularly under the influence of the Pharisees and their rabbis, and had become the real center of worship for the average Jew. Also, the Qumran sect, whether at its central monastery at Khirbet Qumran or in its numerous scattered communities or "encampments," refused to support the worship of the Temple, at least to the extent of offering sacrifices there. But this animus toward the Temple and its sacrifices did not carry over to the Tabernacle, which, unlike the Temple, had the prestige of the Mosaic Law behind it (Exod. chs. 25-40). In view of these facts it is not surprising that the Letter to the Hebrews should center its thought upon the Tabernacle in the wilderness. No Jew of the day could fail to acknowledge its legitimacy, and in holding it up for criticism the author therefore was striking at the very heart of worship under the Old Covenant.

Verses 6-10

The Old Sacrifices (9:6-10)

Hebrews now proceeds to show the inadequacy of the sacrifices offered in the Tabernacle according to the terms of the Old Covenant. It is true, the author says, that the Levitical "priests go continually into the outer tent, performing their ritual duties" (vs. 6). But he sees the utmost significance attaching to the fact that these priests in their daily rounds are not permitted to enter into the Holy of Holies. Only the high priest is allowed to enter there "and he but once a year" (vs. 7; see Leviticus 16:2; Leviticus 16:14; Leviticus 16:29-34).

The "ritual duties" (vs. 6) which the common priests were allowed to perform in the Holy Place included the burning of incense on the golden altar, the placing of shewbread, and the lighting of the seven lights of the "lampstand." But the "second" curtain dividing the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies debarred them from entrance to the very presence of God as signified by the mercy seat on the Ark of the Covenant. The author sees in the existence of this curtain an indication by the "Holy Spirit" that "the way into the sanctuary is not yet opened as long as the outer tent is still standing" (vs. 8). That is, there can be no continual fellowship between God and his people as long as this curtain exists. It is true, as we have already seen (Hebrews 5:3; Hebrews 7:27), that the high priest once a year is allowed to enter the Holy of Holies with a view to sprinkling the "blood" in that tent and even upon the Ark of the Covenant itself, blood "which he offers for himself and for the errors of the people" (vs. 7; Leviticus 16:11-19). But even if this sprinkling of blood were conceded to have accomplished the end in view, yet it is obvious that such single contact would have done little for the cause of true religion. It is with this little, however, that the author is vitally concerned, for it is the product of the high priest’s work on the Day of Atonement. And it is the work of the high priests under the two Covenants which, by and large, he wishes to compare (vss. 11-14). It is to be remembered, however, that in theory all the sacrifices of the Jewish year reached their climax and were subsumed in those offered by the high priest on the Day of Atonement. The author considers the existence of the "second curtain" as "symbolic for the present age" (vs. 9). Putting together all the sacrifices and offerings under the Old Covenant, he holds that neither singly nor collectively do they accomplish the end in view. That is, they "cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper." They do not bring to maturity man’s awareness of fellowship with God, nor can they prepare his spirit to be worthy of such fellowship. Rather, Hebrews sees them as merely "ritual duties" (vs. 6), that is, as ceremonials whose function is to keep alive the cult and to carry on its ritual from year to year. They "deal only with food and drink and various ablutions, regulations for the body" (vs. 10). They serve to cleanse the worshiper and the instruments and furniture of worship and are performed in accordance with the various taboos of a cult religion. Looked at from this point of view, even the work of the high priest on the Day of Atonement is nothing more than a cultic act or series of acts whose sole purpose is to sum up the necessary cultic acts prescribed for a given year, with a view to starting a new religious year afresh. And indeed it may be said that the ritual enjoined in Leviticus 16, in which the high priest sprinkles the blood of the appointed sacrifices upon all the furniture of worship, the Tabernacle itself in its various parts, and even the worshiping congregation, appears to justify the conclusion of the author. Such cultic acts are "imposed until the time of reformation" (vs. 10) or of transformation, which, of course, Hebrews equates with the Christian era.

Verses 11-14

Effectiveness of the New Covenant (9:11-28)

The New Sacrifice (9:11-14)

The few verses of the present section represent the heart of the message of Hebrews. Sacrifice with a view to the assurance of the worshiper’s acceptance into fellowship with God is, on different levek, the high point of religion in both the Old and New Scriptures. As we have just seen, this high point was supposed to have been reached once a year on the Day of Atonement with the entrance of the high priest into the Holy of Holies. The concern of the present section, therefore, is to show that, whereas the sacrifices which the Jewish high priest presented on that occasion were inadequate to serve spiritual ends, by contrast the sacrifice of Jesus Christ as eternal High Priest did accomphsh these very ends. The author summarizes in these few verses much that he has already said. Indeed, almost every word of the passage is full of meaning — meaning either previously pointed out or now for the first time disclosed. This may be briefly summarized as follows:

First, the stress falls on the high priesthood of Jesus Christ, a conception which has been a major point of the letter from 2:17 forward. Here the high priesthood is defined as relating to "the good things that have come" (vs. 11), or that have happened.

Second, Christ’s high-priestly work includes his traversing "the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation)." This is in contrast to the functioning of both high priest and lesser priests of the Jewish cult to which reference was made in verses 6-10. The point had already been made at 4:14 that "we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God." That is to say, our Lord has high-priestly functions in the eternal and genuine tabernacle, a fact to which further reference will be made in verses 24-28.

Third, the offering which he has to make is "not the blood of goats and calves but his own blood" (vs. 12), and therefore it is an offering worthy of "securing an eternal redemption" for the people of God. The offering of blood on the part of Christ is to be understood in the light of: ( 1 ) the act of the Jewish high priest on the Day of Atonement, who sprinkled the blood of a bull (Leviticus 16:14) and of a goat (Leviticus 16:15-19) on the mercy seat in the Holy of Holies to make atonement for the sins of all the people; (2) the next passage (9:15-22), where the blood is explained as being "the blood of the covenant" (vs. 20); and (3) those passages in Hebrews in which Christ’s offering is said to be that of "himself (9:14, 25) or his "body" (10:10-12; see 9:28). From a study of all these passages it becomes clear that "blood," when shed and presented to God, stands for the dedication of the life, the giving of all that can be rendered on behalf of man.

Fourth, the author clinches his argument with a reference to the efficacy of the sacrifices offered on the Day of Atonement by the Jewish high priest. Far from denying that efficacy, he asserts it as the basis of his argument for the validity and efficacy of the sacrifice of Christ. He asserts, however, that the sacrifices of the Jewish sacrificial system avail only "for the purification of the flesh" (vs. 13), that is, only for the purposes of the cultic system of worship, as we have already seen above in verses 9 and 10. Here he mentions specifically "the blood of goats and bulls" because it was such blood as this that the high priest offered on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:11-19). As already said above, the only sacrifices and rituals to which reference is made in Hebrews are those which concern the activity of the high priest on the Day of Atonement. This is because the author is concerned to compare Christ as eternal High Priest with the high priest under the Levitical system, but also because the sacrifices performed by the high priest on that day were in a real sense climactic and may be considered as embracing all others under the Mosaic Law. The only exception to this statement is perhaps the reference to "the ashes of a heifer" (vs. 13). These ashes had nothing specifically to do with the work of the high priest nor with the sacrifices of the Day of Atonement. They were employed in connection with the purification of a person who had touched a corpse (Numbers 19:9; Numbers 19:17-19). They do, therefore, have a general reference to the subject in hand, inasmuch as an unclean person was excluded from the fellowship and particularly from the worship of the people of God. And the point of this letter is exactly that the work of Christ accomplishes all that is necessary in order to achieve this end.

Finally, "the blood of Christ" stands for his self -offering through "the eternal Spirit" (vs. 14). That is to say, the guarantor of Christ’s sacrifice is not an ephemeral animal, but rather is the eternal Spirit of God. Christ’s act, therefore, is an act efficacious in the realm of spirit and should be of service to all those who would purify the "conscience from dead works" with a view to serving the God who is alive (vs. 14; see vs. 9).

Verses 15-23

The New Covenant (9:15-23)

The author now returns to a comparison of the covenants pertaining to the two religions which he is contrasting. His argument takes the form of a series of illustrations designed to prove that no covenant is properly ratified without the shedding of blood. The first of these is taken from the custom of drafting a last "will" and testament (vs. 16). In the Greek the same term is employed for a "covenant" and for a "will." Playing upon this double usage of the word in Greek, the author can remark that "the death of the one who made it [the will] must be established. For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive" (vss. 16-17) . Paul makes a somewhat similar use of the double connotation of the word in Galatians 3:15 (see margin).

The second illustration, taken from the ratification of the first Covenant in the time of Moses, is more obviously relevant (vss. 18-21). In his account of the matter the author has curiously mixed together several passages (Exodus 24:3-8; Exodus 12:22; Leviticus 8:15; Leviticus 8:19; Numbers 19:6) which had severally to do with the ratification of the first Covenant, the celebration of the Passover at the Exodus, and the purification of a leper. Whether this is intentional on his part or simply a matter of inadvertence, we have no way of knowing. He also remarks in verse 19 that "the book itself" — presumably the "book of the covenant" (Exodus 24:7) — is sprinkled with the blood of the Covenant, but of this there is no evidence in the original account. Further, he says that "the tent and all the vessels used in worship" were sprinkled with the blood (vs. 21), although there was no Tabernacle until later.

The third illustration which the author employs is of a more general character, as he makes the sweeping statement that "under the law almost everything is purified with blood" (vs. 22). This statement is correct, and the various purifications by blood on the Day of Atonement are the best proof of the same.

The author now concludes that since "the copies" are cleansed with blood, "the heavenly things themselves" require to be cleansed with "better sacrifices" (vs. 23). The argument is, of course, an analogical one and can carry us only so far. It is based, as is the whole argument of Hebrews with regard to Christ’s high priesthood, upon a fundamental belief in the continuity of revelation between the Old and New Covenants. In consequence we must believe the readers to be Jewish Christians for whom the Old Testament Scriptures constituted an authoritative document before they accepted the Christian faith. The author now reverts in verse 15 to what he has already said with regard to "those who are called" to "receive the promised eternal inheritance," which is the theme of the gospel whenever it is uttered. It is obvious, too, that it is particularly to such Jewish Christians that his statement would be peculiarly of interest that "a death has occurred which redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant" (vs. 15). "Redemption" literally refers to the manumission of slaves and in the scriptural context always recalls the redemption of Israel from the bondage of slavery in Egypt. No Jewish Christian could fail so to understand the reference. However, in the New Testament Scriptures the word has undergone a distinct spiritualization and generally refers, as here, to the forgiveness of sins (Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 1:14; see Romans 3:24-26). Thus it would be clear, at any rate to those who had the teachings of the Hebrew prophetic Scriptures in mind and who were acquainted with the analogies presented by the author, that the second Covenant could accomplish what the first Covenant merely foreshadowed; and indeed this accomplishment included forgiveness of transgressions which the Law under the first Covenant had multiplied (see Romans 5:20-21).

Verses 24-28

The New Tabernacle (9:24-28)

In dividing chapters 8 and 9 into various sections, we must avoid every tendency to limit the author’s discussion in any section to a particular topic. For in his mind the elements of covenant, tabernacle, and sacrifices constitute a unity which is self-contained. Over all the instruments of religion are the Covenants (Old and New) which God has made with his people through the ages; under these Covenants, the two tabernacles (the earthly and the heavenly) have been appointed as places for God and man to draw nigh to each other; and it is in these that the sacrifices (animal and Christ’s) are offered.

In line with this unity, it should be noted that the present section and the one in verses 11-14 begin in very much the same manner and furnish us to an extent with a repetition of the same ideas. There is, however, a new aspect introduced into the argument in the present section. This concerns the implications for worship and for man’s salvation generally which the existence of the heavenly sanctuary brings to fight. These may be said to include the following: First, inasmuch as the true sanctuary is in "heaven itself (vs. 24), our Lord may be said to have appeared "in the presence of God" in a way that was denied to even the high priest as he entered into the inner Holy of Holies of the earthly Tabernacle. This will be seen to have significance for those who follow Jesus into the sanctuary (10:19; see by contrast 9:8). Again, our Lord’s entrance as High Priest into the heavenly sanctuary need not be performed "repeatedly" (vs. 25). Repetitions of this type, as the author has already indicated, serve to show the nonvalidity of the sacrifices thus presented (vss. 8-10). This is because such sacrifices are associated only with the things of "this creation" (vs. 11) rather than with those of "heaven itself’ (vs. 24). And they have no more final character than any other events attaching to the earthly plane. In consequence, Christ, had he been an earthly high priest, "would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world" (vs. 26). His sacrifice, it is true, was offered on the earthly plane and "at the end of the age," but it had heavenly associations which were denied to the sacrifices of the Levitical priests; it was "the sacrifice of himself," that is, of the eternal Son and "through the eternal Spirit" (vs. 14). This personal, heavenly character of our Lord’s sacrifice set it apart from all others which preceded it. The "now" in verse 24 is intended to make clear this subtle relation between the historical and the eternal nature of Christ’s sacrifice, a relation which is wholly unique. The earthly and the heavenly are "once for all" united in the "now" of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice.

Finally, this "once for all" aspect of the work of Christ is asserted in the form of an analogy drawn from common experience. It is a well-known fact that in the natural order there is a finality attaching to death. Man, then, can look forward to nothing intervening before the coming of the "judgment" of God (vs. 27). Our author now sees a similar finality about the work of Christ. His offering "to bear the sins of many" is just as final as the death of men on the plane of human affairs. Nor will anything intervene between that death and his coming "a second time" for the salvation of his people (vs. 28). And here our author expresses his thought with a quotation ("to bear the sins of many") taken from Isaiah 53:12 and the description of the work of the Suffering Servant of the Lord. Although the author employs throughout the imagery of the high priesthood of Melchizedek, he shares the common conviction of the Early Church that our Lord in his work and ministry fulfilled the concept of the Suffering Servant

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Hebrews 9". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/hebrews-9.html.
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