Having now started a list of how much better Jesus is, and is the covenant He makes possible, the writer moved to show how every part of the original tabernacle also points to Jesus, who is the perfect version of what the tabernacle merely symbolized.
This would also have been both breathtaking in its prophetic fulfillment but also devastating in its implications. It would mean the temple was only a placeholder for the true. And, in fact, depending on when scholars say this epistle to the Hebrews was written, the imminent destruction of the temple was certainly at hand.
The Earthly Tabernacle
The Mosaic covenant had a pattern for the tabernacle, worship, and sacrifices. The old sanctuary merely represented the better sanctuary in heaven.
Now even the first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly sanctuary.
For a tent was constructed, the first one, in which were the lampstand, the table, and the bread of the Presence; this is called the Holy Place.
Behind the second curtain was a tent called the Holy of Holies. In it stood the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant overlaid on all sides with gold, in which there were a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tablets of the covenant; above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat.
(Of these things we cannot speak now in detail.)
Such preparations having been made, the priests go continually into the first tent to carry out their ritual duties;
but only the high priest goes into the second, and he but once a year, and not without taking the blood that he offers for himself and for the sins committed unintentionally by the people.
By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the sanctuary has not yet been disclosed as long as the first tent is still standing.Hebrews 9:1-8 (NRSV)
The tabernacle, or sanctuary, had three main areas.
The outer courtyard, where the great altar was placed, and where people could bring their sacrifices for the Levitical priests to slaughter
The Holy Place, where only the priests could go to daily refresh the incense altar, keep the candles burning, and put fresh baked bread on a table to represent the twelve tribes of Israel.
The Holy of Holies, which separated the representation of God from the view of the people by a huge, thick, ornate curtain, because of God’s purity in holiness and the people’s impurity of sin. The people’s very nature of sin made them unable to gaze upon God’s holiness and survive it.
Day of Atonement
The Holy of Holies could be entered only once a year, by only one person. On the Day of Atonement, the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies wearing only the linen garments associated with the holy vestments. The high priest would take incense from the golden altar described along with the blood of the lamb sacrificed for the sins of all Israel, and sprinkle it on the mercy seat, the atonement cover.
This was a special place on the ark of the covenant inside of which was held the law of God. Each year God would accept this sacrifice on behalf of God’s people, looking from God’s perfect law which required death as payment for breaking it, to the blood of the slain lamb, symbolically covering the people sins from the law, and listen to their prayers.
But that is all it was, a symbol.
This is a symbol of the present time, during which gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, but deal only with food and drink and various baptisms, regulations for the body imposed until the time comes to set things right.Hebrews 9:9-10 (NRSV)
The tabernacle was earthly, and later even the temple was still, after all, earthly. The efficacy of the animal sacrifices was limited, at best. These things were all meant to point to the spiritual reality to come with Messiah.
Christ’s sacrifice would be incomparably greater than the animal sacrifices outlined in Leviticus. Ultimately, the animal sacrifices would only be able to act as a placeholder for Jesus’ sacrifice. Animal blood is not transformative. The sacrifices, and the scapegoat, could ease the sense of guilt, and impart a sense of ceremonial purity.
But that was all.
And it would not, could not, last.
The Heavenly Tabernacle
But when Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation), he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.
For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, 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 worship the living God!
For this reason he is the mediator of a -new -covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, because a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant.Hebrews 9:11-15 (NRSV)
The high priest’s yearly sacrifice acted, year after year, as a living vision, a living oracle of what Messiah would do for all people at the appointed time.
The Seal of Blood
The writer reminded his readers of how contracts were made binding.
Where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it 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.Hebrews 9:16-17 (NRSV)
There has to be a death in order for the contract to “come alive,” so to speak.
Hence not even the first covenant was inaugurated without blood.
For when every commandment had been told to all the people by Moses in accordance with the law, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the scroll itself and all the people, saying,
“This is the blood of the covenant that God has ordained for you.”
And in the same way he sprinkled with the blood both the tent and all the vessels used in worship.
Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.Hebrews 9:18-22 (NRSV) as depicted in Exodus 24:4-8
The writer had taken the people once again back to that first covenant, when the Hebrew people had become the people of God. They had entered into a solemn ceremony in which many animals had been slaughtered, and all the people symbolically sprinkled with that blood. It was a way for them to say,
So may it be done to us, that our blood be shed and our lives taken, if we do not follow all the words of this Law.
This was the nature of all ancient covenants, and the consecration of all things, as Moses demonstrated again and again.