Shadow and Reality

Series: Hebrews

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Nov 11, 1998

Hebrews 9:1-14

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Turn in your Bibles to Hebrews 9.  As we have already seen, a great theme from Hebrews 2 - 10, is Jesus as our Great High Priest, and especially in chapter 8, there has been a stress on Jesus as a superior High Priest to the priests of the Old Testament and as the mediator of a better covenant.  And as that idea of Jesus being a better High Priest and a mediator of a better covenant is put before us, we naturally ask the question, “In what way?   How is it?   In what sense is Christ a better priest of a better covenant?”  And the author of Hebrews takes a detour in Hebrews 8:7 which runs all the way through the middle of  Hebrews 9, beginning to explain to us what he means by that.  That’s what we are going to study tonight.

You remember, beginning in verse 6 of Hebrews 8, the author of Hebrews says that the covenant of the Lord Jesus Christ is a better covenant, enacted on better promises.  He explains what he means by taking you to Jeremiah 31 and repeating the promises of Jeremiah 31 and stressing that the Old Covenant itself looked forward to a New Covenant.  Otherwise, why would an Old Covenant prophet like Jeremiah be talking about a New Covenant?  If the Old Covenant was the best thing there was, why would the Old Testament prophet be talking about a New Covenant?  But he also points out that in Jeremiah 31, it stresses that this New Covenant about which he is talking is not going to be like the Old Covenant.  The Old Covenant was broken by the people of God.  It was ineffective for accomplishing the nature of communion which God desired for His people.  And so the New Covenant was not going to be like that.

Jeremiah also stressed that in the New Covenant there would be unprecedented knowledge of the Lord by the people of God, as well as actual forgiveness of sins.  All those things were stressed in Jeremiah 31.  The author of Hebrews piles those things up in order to show the superiority of the New Covenant of Jesus Christ.

Then in Hebrews 9 he begins to explain the difference between the Old and the New Covenant by looking at the forms of worship in the Old Testament and the New Testament and showing who the New Testament is superior. That’s what we’re going to look at tonight.  Let’s look at God’s holy word in Hebrews 9 beginning in verse 1 and we will read to verse 14. 

Hebrews 9:-14 

Now, Father, open our eyes we ask.  We pray that by the Spirit we would see the truth of this word and gain everlasting encouragement from it, especially that we would see the force of this truth for our own lives and so become both hearers and doers of the word.  For Christ’ sake, we ask it.  Amen. 

Now we have already said from Hebrews 10, in fact we could include Hebrews 1 in that as well, there has been a great theme resonating.  Jesus as the Great High Priest, Jesus as superior to any of the mediators of the Old Testament, superior to the angels, superior to Moses, superior to Joshua, superior to Aaron.  That theme of the superiority of Christ has been stressed throughout.  In Hebrews 9, that theme is continued and emphasized by showing the superiority of what Jesus has done in comparison to the Old Testament worship, especially that worship that was led by the priesthood at the tabernacle and then in the temple.

I’d like you to see two or three things that the author argues tonight.  First, this passage could be outlines in different ways, but I think it fair to outline it this way.  If you look at verses 1-5, you see a similar theme running throughout that passage.  It’s basically describing the Old Testament regulations for worship, especially the structure of the tabernacle itself.  That’s described without much comment, actually, in the first five verses.  Then in verses 6-10, the author then begins to explain to us the meaning of those rituals which were performed at the tabernacle.  He has gone to a great deal of trouble to explain to you that there was a inner sanctuary and an outer sanctuary in the tabernacle in verses 1-5.  In verses 6-10, he wants to explain why.  He wants you to understand how that functioned and what that has to say about Jesus’ work.  And then finally in verses 11-14, he is going to begin to directly apply the truths that we have learned about that Old Testament worship and see that Christ’s work is superior to the work done by the priest in the Old Testament ritual.   So let’s look at this passage together.   

I. The OT regulations for worship.

First, he points us to the logical significance of the tabernacle itself in verses 1-5, as he lists for us the regulations for worship and basically the instruments that were there in the tabernacle, both in the outer tabernacle and in the Holy of Holies.  And he argues that even the divine regulations of the Old Testament reveal the inherent limits of the Old Testament.  They reveal the limitations of the Old Testament system and the need for something greater, something more perfect, something that would transcend it.  And he argues very clearly that the Mosaic records on the construction of the tabernacle indicate a distinction between the outward tabernacle and the inward tabernacle.  By the way, in verses 6-10, he expands on this explicitly.  But he is already hinting at it here in verses 1-5.

And basically his argument is this.  He is saying the very greatest symbols of God’s nearness and presence with His people are on display, where?   Well, yes, in the tabernacle; but especially where?  In the Holy of Holies, and he lists them for you.  He doesn’t list everything, but look what he does.  If you will look up in verse 3 where he begins to speak behind the second veil, he is speaking what’s in the inner sanctum.  He is speaking about what is in the Holy of Holies.  And who goes into the Holy of Holies?  Only the high priest?  And how often?   Only once a year.  So what he lists is inside the Holy of Holies. 

First, he tells you that the altar of incense is there.  A sign of the mediation between the priests  on behalf of the people of God to God.  You know the incense is a picture in the Book of Revelation of the prayers of God’s people going up.  Primarily in the Old Covenant, that was set forth in the prayers of the priests on behalf of the people of God.  That was a sign of mediation.

Then he says that the ark of the covenant is there.  It was a sign of God’s sovereignty and His rule over His people. The manna is there, a sign of God’s extraordinary provision for His people.  It’s one of the great events in redemptive history when He provides food for His people in the wilderness.  There is Aaron’s rod, budded.  You remember the event when it budded.  It was when God was showing which tribe would be the priestly tribe.  Aaron’s rod budded indicating that the Levites would be the priestly tribe, a sign of God’s choosing that priestly line.

Also the tables of the covenant were inside the Ark of the Covenant.  The sign of God’s righteous rule of His people.  The cherubim on the mercy seat itself which reminds us of God’s glory.

All those symbols of signs of God’s power and His nearness and His glory for His people.  But they are all in side the Holy of Holies.  And nobody in the Old Covenant could go there except the High Priest, once a year.  What is he saying this for?  You cannot but sense the bereavement of God’s people from being able to see these things.  There was a time when all of God’s people could see Aaron’s rod budded.  But having been placed in the Holy of Holies, none of God’s people could even gaze upon it.  None of God’s people could gaze upon the altar of incense.  It was separated, it was taken away form them.  Why is he saying this?  Because he is wanting you to understand that even these symbols of God’s nearness and presence with His people were withheld from God’s people under the Old Covenant.  One of the superiorities of the New Covenant is that in the New Covenant in the Lord Jesus Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, God has drawn extraordinarily near to His people so that all His people experience on a daily basis that presence.  And he is setting up that argument for you. 

II. The meaning of the rituals of the inner sanctuary.

He begins this argument in verse 6-10.  Look at that passage.  There he tells us the theological significance of what he has been hinting at in verses 1-5.  He begins to expand on the meaning of those rituals that are performed by the high priest in the inner sanctuary.  And again, he makes much between this distinction between the outward tabernacle and the Holy of Holies.  Look at verses 6 and 7.  “Now when these things have been so prepared, the priests are continually entering the outer tabernacle, performing the divine worship.  But into the second only the high priest enters, once a year, and not without taking blood, which He offers for himself and for the sins of the people committed in ignorance.”  And he begins to explain to us, especially in verses 9 and 10, the significance of Old Testament worship.

Look at verse 9.  Notice he tells us that Old Testament worship was symbolic.  He tells us in verse 8, the Holy Spirit is signifying that the way into the holy place has not been disclosed while the tabernacle is still standing which is a symbol for the present time.  He means that that outward tabernacle in the Old Covenant pointed to a greater reality beyond itself.  And not yet experience. 

By the way, that is one reason why symbolism is so minimal in New Testament worship.  Symbolism in Old Testament worship was central because it was important for the Old Testament believer to understand that there was something yet to come greater than he had experienced.  But in New Testament worship, the reality has come.  And if we revert to symbolism, we undercut the force of the newness and the glory of the New Covenant.  And that is why New Testament worship is spiritual and simple, rather than filled with great and high and exalted rituals and symbolisms.  Why?  Because the reality has come in Jesus Christ, the real sacrifice has been made and there is no need for symbols to point to something greater.  We have already experienced the greater.  That underlies the whole of New Testament theology of worship.

Notice also in verse 8 that we are told that the standing, the physical presence of that temple symbolized that the way into the holy place had not yet been disclosed.  Think of it.  All those symbols of God’s presence are where you and I could not have gotten to them.  Only the high priests could have gotten to them.  What more graphic picture can you get of the fact that the way into the very presence of communion with God had not yet been revealed.  And, of course, the author of Hebrews is going to say because that way is Jesus Christ.  He is the way, the truth and the life.  He is the way into the presence of the Father and the very fact that we are blocked from going into that place with all those symbols of nearness to God reminds us that there is yet a greater plan to be revealed.  And that plan, the author of Hebrews is going to say, is the Lord Jesus Christ.

Notice also in verse 9, the author of Hebrews goes out of his way to say that all those sacrifices offered could not cleanse your conscience from a sense of sin and guilt.  Why?  Because they had to be repeated year after year.  Year after year you had to go down to Jerusalem with your goats and your calves and your heifers and you had to see the rituals repeated over and over.  And the very repetition reminded you that there was no final forgiveness provided by that blood.  There had to be something greater, something beyond that actually cleansed your conscience.  The very repetition of it reminded you that you were still guilty.  Have you ever found yourself asking for forgiveness over and over of someone?  Why do you do that?  There could be lots for reasons, but one reason you do that is because you are sure that you have received forgiveness. 

Now think of the psychological effect of the constant repetition of the acts of ritual of seeking atonement of sin.  Though it beautifully sets forth the need for atonement, it was inadequate to give us a sense that sins had been dealt with, once for all.  That’s the beauty of the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ.  It needs no repetition.  I am freed from my sins by that once-for-all sacrifice.  It is not capable of being repeated; whereas the Old Testament sacrifices had to be constantly repeated year after year.  And it reminded the worshiper of his uncleanness and need for forgiveness of sin.

Finally in verse 10, you see the author of Hebrews argue that these regulations themselves looked forward to the time of reformation.  There were limitations in them which indicated to you that there would no need to be a time when things were changed, when they are not any longer practiced.  And so we see that the Old Covenant worship was filled with sign and symbol and shadow. 

Old Covenant worship was filled with signs; that is, it signified things which had not yet been realized.  This is stressed in verse 8.  It was filled with symbols, in the sense that it pointed to realities which it did not accomplish itself.  And it was filled with shadows.  It foreshadowed a time of change and reformation.  This was, of course, by design.  This wasn’t an accident.  The Lord did it this way on purpose.  But this is the nature of Old Testament worship, in short, the author of Hebrews says.

III. Why Jesus is a better high priest.

And then in verses 11-14, he begins to explain to you in light of that why Jesus is a better priest of a better covenant.  And basically he zeros in on two thoughts in verses 11 and 12.  I direct your attention there.  First, notice that he says that Christ entered through a greater tabernacle.  He means that Christ entered into the real tabernacle, not just the shadowy earthly tabernacle.  He entered into the heaven of heavens, into the very presence of God, Himself.  What is he saying by that?  Is He entering into some sort of platonic mysticism there?  Absolutely not.  He is saying that Christ is the reality which the Old Testament tabernacle merely shadowed or foreshadowed or set forth.  Christ really did enter into the very presence of God.  And that was only symbolized by the high priest entering into the Holy of Holies once a year.

And secondly, notice that he says that Christ didn’t enter by the blood of goats and calves.  He entered by His own blood.  What is being stressed is that Christ’s righteousness is totally unlike our justifying righteousness.  Luther used to call the righteousness by which we are justified by faith “alien” righteousness.  He called it that because we are justified because of Christ’s righteousness, not our own.  I am not declared righteous before God having trusted in the Lord Jesus Christ because I am instantaneously made into perfectly righteous person.  I am declared righteous because when I have trusted in Him, I am united with the Lord Jesus Christ and His righteousness becomes mine, even as my sin became His on the cross of Cavalry.  Luther called it an “alien” righteousness; it was not a righteousness native to ourselves.  The author of Hebrews is saying, “Look, Jesus didn’t enter into the tabernacle of Heaven by an “alien” righteousness.  He entered the tabernacle of Heaven by His own righteousness.  He needed offer no other sacrifice, because He was the perfect sacrifice.  He is saying that the Lord Jesus Christ earned the right to enter into the presence of God as the mediator on behalf of His people.  Again, he is saying, “That’s why He is a superior high priest.”  He entered into the real presence of God and He entered in by His own righteousness, in contrast to the righteousness of the Old Testament priests.  And, by the way, he gives you almost a throwaway phrase there.  What is it?  “Having obtained eternal redemption, He entered.”  And so it is stressed again that Christ, by His sacrifice, effected our redemption.  And in all these ways, the author of Hebrews is going to argue that Jesus is a better priest of a better covenant. 

Why?  First we see in verse 11 that Jesus has disclosed the way into fellowship with God forever.  If the Old Testament inner sanctuary, the Old Testament Holy of Holies reminded us that we haven’t found the way into fellowship with God, Jesus’ death reminds us that we have found the way if we believe on Him.  In the New Covenant, because we are forgiven by the blood of Christ, we don’t need a ritual to remind us of the need for cleansing as they had in the Old Covenant sacrifices because we have found the real cleansing in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.  In the New Covenant we don’t have the shadow, we have the reality.  Christ is the once-for-all sacrifice for sin. 

And, of course, that brings us right back to the main question of this whole section which is, “In what sense is Christ the mediator of a better covenant?”  And it is precisely that question that the author of Hebrews picks up in Hebrews 9:15 and runs to the end of the chapter.  Throughout this chapter, remember that he is talking to people who are captivated with the idea of perhaps going back to the Jewish ritualism.  Over and over he says that symbolism, though it may seem outwardly and esthetically impressive, is empty in comparison to the reality of a saving relationship with Jesus Christ, because He is a better priest. He has offered a better sacrifice, and He has showed you the only way into fellowship with God.  His argument is this, “Are you going to turn your back on that and go back to the crumbs of the foreshadowing which has now passed away?”  May God help us to choose rightly when faced with that choice.  Let us pray. 

Our Lord and our God, every day we are tempted to go back to the crumbs of our own works and our own righteousness to stand before You.  Help us we pray to trust in the only mediator of God’s people, the Lord Jesus Christ, who accomplished salvation for all who trust in Him.  We give You the praise and the glory. We ask it in Jesus’ name.  Amen

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