Better: A Study of the Christian Life in Hebrews: The Holy Spirit is Signifying This

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on June 9, 2013

Hebrews 9:1-14

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If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Hebrews chapter 9.  We continue to make our way through this epistle together.  The argument has been made already in this book that Jesus is a better High Priest and is a mediator of a better covenant.  One of the ways that the author of Hebrews argues that Jesus is a better priest is to say that He is a priest according to the order of Melchizedek.  That is, unlike the Old Testament Levitical priesthood that descended from Aaron and which offered animal sacrifices, men who lived and died in their ministries and were replaced year after year offered animal sacrifices, Jesus’ priesthood was an eternal priesthood like unto Melchizedek. And so the author argues that Jesus is a better priest because His priesthood is like the eternal priesthood of Melchizedek.

Now in the passage before us today, the author takes up the second part of that argument that Jesus is the mediator of a better covenant.  And the question that needs to pop into your mind is, “How so?  How is it that Jesus is a mediator of a better covenant?  How is this covenant better than the covenant which was inaugurated at Mount Sinai under Moses and in which not only the Levitical priesthood served but in which there was first the tabernacle and then later a temple and there were special furnishings and there were Old Testament rituals in the part of the worship of the people of God?  How is this new covenant better than that covenant?”  That’s what the author of Hebrews is going to argue in the passage that we’re studying today.  

Now before we read the passage together, I’d like you to be on the lookout for three things.  In verses 1 to 5, the author of Hebrews points us to the architecture and the furnishings, interestingly not of the temple, but of the tabernacle.  So he’s got in his mind not the temple in Jerusalem but the tabernacle, the instructions of which are written down at the end of the book of Exodus.  So he’s thinking of what the Bible says through Moses about how the tabernacle is to be built and what is to be put in the tabernacle.  And in the first five verses he says, “I want you to think about the architecture and the furnishings of the tabernacle.  What does it teach you?”  That’s the question that he’s putting to you.  What do you learn from the architecture and the furnishing of the tabernacle?  Then, if you look at verses 6 to 10, he turns from the architecture and the furnishings to think about the ritual.  He reminds you that in the outer part of the tabernacle, the priests would go and serve, but in the inner sanctum, in the Holy of Holies, only the chief, the head, the High Priest could go and he could only go once a year.  And he said, “What do you learn from the rituals of the Old Testament tabernacle worship?”  And then in verses 11 to 14, he says, “Now, in light of the furnishings and the architecture and the worship and the ritual of the old covenant, how does Jesus surpass that?  How is Jesus better?  How does Jesus fulfill that?”  Be on the lookout for those three parts of this passage as we read it.  And before we do, let’s pray and ask for God’s help and blessing.

Heavenly Father, this is Your Word and as it is a word that especially focuses on the significance of the sacrifice of our Savior, Jesus Christ, I pray that You would open our eyes to understand the importance and the meaning of His shed blood, that especially we would understand the Gospel in the reading and hearing of Your Word in such a way that those of us who already believe will believe it more, and that those who have come here this morning not understanding the Gospel or not believing the Gospel, will by Your Holy Spirit believe to their eternal salvation and everlasting good.  I pray these things in Jesus’ name, amen.

This is the Word of God.  Hear it beginning in Hebrews chapter 9 verse 1:

“Now even the first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly place of holiness.  For a tent was prepared, the first section, in which were the lampstand and the table and the bread of the Presence.  It is called the Holy Place.  Behind the second curtain was a second section called the Most Holy Place, having the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, in which was a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron’s staff that budded, and the tablets of the covenant.  Above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat.  Of these things we cannot now speak in detail.  

These preparations having thus been made, the priests go regularly into the first section, performing their ritual duties, but into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people.  By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing (which is symbolic for the present age).  According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation.

But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.  For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.”

Amen, and thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant Word.  May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.

The author of Hebrews is arguing in this passage that Jesus is a better priest and a better mediator of a better covenant.  And you have to ask yourself the question, “How?  How is Jesus a better mediator of a better covenant?”  And the author of Hebrews answers your question, “How?” in these three sections of the passage that we’ve just read.  And I’d like you to look at them with me now.  

The Old Covenant as a Shadow of Jesus

Consider the furnishings of the Old Testament tabernacle.

First of all, look at verses 1 to 5.  He first answers your question, “How is it that Jesus is the mediator of a better covenant?” by pointing you to the Old Testament furnishings for worship and for the very architecture of the tabernacle.  And he wants you to think about the theological significance of the tabernacle. The tabernacle architecture and furnishing, on the one hand, pointed to the presence and provision of God among His people.  The very fact that the tabernacle was to be placed – where?  When the tribes of Israel were traveling, where was the tabernacle?  Right in the middle in the wilderness.  The people of God were surrounding the tabernacle.  What was that to symbolize?  God is with us.  When David decided that he wanted to build a temple for God, many, many years after Moses and the children of Israel had wandered in the wilderness, do you remember what God said to him?  “When My people were wandering in tents in the wilderness, I was in a tent with them.”  The tabernacle, as beautiful as it was, as expensive as it was, was a big tent, less than half the size of this room.  It was expensive, it was beautiful, it was impressive, but it was a tent, and it symbolized, from God to His people, “While you’re living in tents as nomads in the wilderness, do you know where I’m going to be?  Right next to you; camped out.”  It symbolized the presence of God.  

And it symbolized the provision of God for His people.  Think about the furnishings that are mentioned here in verses 1 to 5.  There was the altar of incense.  Now what does the incense represent in Old Testament worship?  Well we know from the book of Revelation that it emphasizes the prayers of the people of God going up to God.  And so the incense in Old Testament worship symbolized what? That God hears His people’s prayer and especially the prayers of the priests on behalf of His people. And then think of the ark of the covenant itself.  The ark of the covenant was the symbol of God’s throne.  It was the symbol of His sovereignty and His reign and His providence over His people.  And then think of what was inside the ark of the covenant.  There was a golden urn filled with manna.  What did that manna symbolize?  While the children of Israel were in the wilderness they said, “We’re going to starve to death!” and God says, “No, I’m going to feed you bread from heaven.”  So the manna symbolized God’s provision for His people.  

Or think of Aaron’s rod.  His blossoming rod had been placed into the ark of the covenant.  What did that symbolize?  It symbolized God’s providing a line of priests to serve His people.  And then think of the tablets of the covenant which Moses had presented from God to the people.  They were inside of the ark of the covenant and that symbolized God’s righteous rule.  And then what was over the top of the ark of the covenant?  The cherubim with their wings.  And here in verse 5 the author of Hebrews rightly says, “What does that point to?”  It points to God’s glory!  You remember when the great angels were surrounding God’s throne in Isaiah chapter 6 and singing, “Holy, holy, holy!  The whole earth is full of Your glory!”  Their veiling their faces and their feet symbolized the glory that they could not even bear to look upon in the immediate presence of God.  So all of these parts of the architecture beautifully symbolized these blessings – the presence and provision of God.

But guess what?  If you and I had lived in those days we would never have seen those things.  The only people who saw these things were the priests.  And some of these things not even the priests saw; only the High Priest, once a year, saw the things that were in the inner sanctum, in the Holy of Holies.  And the author of Hebrews says, “Do you understand what that symbolizes?”  It symbolizes that the way into the very presence of God had not yet been disclosed.  The Old Testament ritual system wasn’t the way into the presence of God.  The curtain was still there, separating God and His people and from their enjoyment of His nearer presence.  And so pause right now and just remember what the gospels tell you.  When Jesus dies, what happens to the curtain that separates the Holy of Holies from the outer temple?  It is rent from top to bottom.  So the author of Hebrews points you to that architecture and that furnishing and says what?  The very architecture and furnishing of Old Testament worship shows that it was not God’s ultimate plan to bring us into His presence.  

Consider the ritual of the Old Testament priesthood.

Then he says, “Think about the ritual.”  Look at verses 6 to 10.  He asks you to think about the Old Testament ritual for worship and reflect on its theological significance.  And he says very specifically, “The Holy Spirit signified in the Old Testament rituals that a time of reformation and change was coming.”  And especially he focuses on this.  In verse 8, he points out that the very distinction between the outer tabernacle and the Holy of Holies shows that the Holy Place, the way into the Holy Place, had not yet been disclosed.  In verse 9, he tells you that it pointed to a greater reality beyond itself.  “It was symbolic for the present age.”  Again in verse 9 it makes clear that it was not able to make the conscience of the worshiper clean.  And in verse 10 he says that it points forward to a time of reformation. 

Old Testament worship as a sign.

If I could summarize that for you I’d do it with three “S”es.  The author of Hebrews tells you that the Old Testament ritual worship was a sign, it was a symbol, and it was a shadow.  Let me tell you what I mean by each of those words.  It was a sign in that it represented to us, it signed to us, it signified to us that the way into God’s presence had not yet been disclosed.  So the very fact that the Holy of Holies was still there and that only the High Priest could go in, signified, the author of Hebrews says, that the way into God’s nearer presence had not yet been disclosed in the Old Testament ritual.  

Old Testament worship as a symbol.

Secondly, it was a symbol.  Verse 9 – it was a symbol of our need for cleansing that the cleansing comes by the sacrifice of blood.  So the Old Testament ritual taught you, you need to be forgiven; you need to be cleansed.  And the way you’re going to be cleansed it through a blood sacrifice.  But it didn’t provide a sacrifice that was able to forgive our sins.  It provided a sacrifice that was able to make you ritually clean.  If you went through the sacrificial system of the Old Testament you were declared ceremonially clean.  But the blood of bulls and goats, we’re going to learn in chapter 10, cannot forgive sin.  This ritual could make you outwardly clean, it could make you ritually or ceremonially clean, but it couldn’t get to your conscience.  It couldn’t cleanse your heart from the deepest sins, the most humiliating sins of your life. No, something else was needed and the very ritual system pointed forward to something else.  

Old Testament worship as a shadow.

And so it was a sign, it was a symbol, and it was a shadow.  That is, it foreshadowed a time of change.  In other words, by design, by design, this Old Testament worship had in it a built-in obsolescence.  You know, in this passage it was called “the first covenant.”  Well you don’t have a first covenant unless there’s a second.  Elsewhere he calls it “the old covenant.”  Well you don’t have an old covenant unless there’s a new covenant.  And over and over, the point is, this first covenant, this old covenant, was designed by God to be superseded by a better one.  

Jesus as the fulfillment of the Old Covenant 

And that is what he is going to talk about in the last section here if you’ll look with me at verses 11 to 14.  What he says is, that if you understand the architecture and the furnishings of the tabernacle and if you understand the ritual of the Old Testament priesthood, you will understand that Jesus fulfills those rituals and He is a better priest and a better mediator of a better covenant because Jesus actually fulfills the things that Jeremiah prophesied in Jeremiah 31 verses 31 to 34.  And let me show you four ways that he does that here in verses 1 to 11.  

In the new covenant, the way into the very presence of God has been disclosed.

First, in verse 11, we are told that when Jesus appeared, “he entered once for all into the holy places.”  That is, in Jesus, the way into the very presence of God has been disclosed.  That’s why it was so significant that the curtain was rent at the death of Jesus because Jesus is the way into the nearer presence of God.  

In the new covenant, we are actually cleansed by the blood of Jesus Christ.

Second, in the new covenant, through the blood of Christ, we have not simply a reminder that we need to be cleansed, and not simply a sign that it is by the sacrifice of blood that we are cleansed, but we are cleansed by the blood of Jesus Christ.  It’s not just a sign of a symbol; His blood brings actual, complete forgiveness.  

In the new covenant, we don’t have the shadow; we have the reality.

And that leads us to the third thing.  In the new covenant, we don’t have the shadow; we have the reality.  The old sacrifices looked forward to a greater sacrifice.  That’s why they were continually repeated.  But over and over in the book of Hebrews, the author uses this word of this phrase to talk about Jesus’ sacrifice.  Do you remember it?  You’ve heard it this morning and you’ve actually sung it this morning – “once for all.”  Now none of the Old Testament sacrifices were once for all. They were repeated over and over and over.  But Jesus’ sacrifice was once for all.  And the point is this.  Jesus, when He shed His blood on the cross as a sacrifice, actually fulfills the promises that were made through Jeremiah in the new covenant prophesies of Jeremiah 31.  Do you remember what Jesus said on the night that He was betrayed?  Luke records it for you.  In Luke chapter 22, verses 19 and following, Jesus, at one point during the Lord’s Supper, takes the cup and He says, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood which is poured out for you for the forgiveness” or “remission of sins.”  Do you see what Jesus is saying?  He’s saying, “All of those animal sacrifices in the Old Testament, did they forgive your sins?  No, but My blood shed tomorrow?  Yes, it will forgive all the sins of all those who trust in Me because it’s not just a symbol that we need to be forgiven and it’s not just a symbol that forgiveness comes through blood sacrifice; it is the one and only true sacrifice by which the sins of all those who have ever lived who trust in Me are forgiven.”  Nothing but the blood of Jesus.  What can wash away my sin?  Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

In the new covenant, the sacrifice of Jesus actually brings about the forgiveness of sins.

And fourth, that is precisely what the author of Hebrews says is what is better about this covenant.  What makes Jesus a better mediator of a better covenant?  It is that His sacrifice actually brings about the forgiveness of sins.  You know it’s not uncommon in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament, for the prophets and the leaders of God’s people to contrast the true God with the false claims of the false religions.  But here, Jesus is being compared with a ritual of the Old Testament and we are being told that He is better.  He’s a better priest; He’s a better mediator of a better covenant.  Why?  Because His sacrifice actually forgives sin and it is the only sacrifice that forgives sin.  

So here’s the application of that truth to all of us.  If you want to be forgiven of sin, nothing will avail but the blood of Jesus.  He is the better priest; the better mediator of a better covenant.  Your only hope, but a hope that is sure and certain is to trust in Him and He will wash away your sins.  Let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, we thank You for Your Word, a simple message that is presented by the book of Hebrews with the profoundest theology.  We would not miss it, Lord.  We all are sinners.  We all need forgiveness.  There is nothing that can avail to forgive us except the shed blood of Jesus Christ.  Grant that each and every one of us would trust in Him today and always.  We ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.

Now let’s sing the truth of God’s Word singing number 307, “Nothing But the Blood of Jesus.”  

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your Spirit.  Amen.

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