The writer of Hebrews had carefully shown how each part of the tabernacle, and especially the sacrifices made on the Day of Atonement, were symbolic of, and shadows of, the true tabernacle in the heavenly realm. Everything in the Levitical law, the rites and rituals, the rules surrounding being ceremonially clean, all the sacrifices and offerings pointed to the one sacrifice offered by the one eternal high priest—Messiah Jesus.
Thus it was necessary for the sketches of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves need better sacrifices than these.Hebrews 9:23 (NRSV)
The writer was referring to the Day of Atonement sacrifices.
He shall take some of the blood of the bull, and sprinkle it with his finger on the front of the mercy seat, and before the mercy seat he shall sprinkle the blood with his finger seven times.
He shall slaughter the goat of the sin offering that is for the people and bring its blood inside the curtain, and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, sprinkling it upon the mercy seat and before the mercy seat. Thus he shall make atonement for the sanctuary, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel.Leviticus 16:14-16 (NRSV)
The word for purification is καθαρίζω | katharizo, meaning to cleanse, purge, or purify. It makes sense that the “sketches” of the heavenly things, the copies—however exact—made for earthly use would need cleansing because they would still have been imperfect. These “sketches,” of the tabernacle and the sacred objects, the priests in their priestly garments, even the rites and ceremonies they performed were all physical, corporeal, made by humans out of earthly materials. Each year, they would need to be purified.
But heavenly things?
What could that mean that the heavenly things would need “better sacrifices”? In what way would the heavenly realm need purification or cleansing?
I read four scholarly positions:
- The writer did not mean the heavenly things needed purification, but rather the “better sacrifices” referred to Jesus’ sacrifice, and the atonement or purification achieved in heaven was the real purification that authenticated the yearly Day of Atonement sacrifices on earth.
- One of the meanings for καθαρίζω | katharizo is ceremonial consecration rather than purification or cleansing (symbolic or otherwise). Jesus consecrated the heavenly tabernacle with His sacrifice. However, the original tabernacle was dedicated with oil rather than blood, which weakens this theory.
Then you shall take the anointing oil, and anoint the tabernacle and all that is in it, and consecrate it and all its furniture, so that it shall become holy.Exodus 40:9 (NRSV)
- A third idea holds the heavenly realm actually did need cleansing and purification because Satan had visited several times, defiling the holy sanctuary. Four passages seem to support this view.
Then he showed me the high priest Joshua standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him.Zechariah 3:1(NRSV)
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous;John 2:1 (NRSV)
and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.Colossians 1:20 (NRSV)
Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming,
“Now have come the salvation and the powerRevelation 12:10 (NRSV)
and the kingdom of our God
and the authority of his Messiah,
for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down,
who accuses them day and night before our God.
- This last position is similar to the first, that Jesus the true high priest in the original and true heavenly tabernacle was doing for real what the earthly, mortal high priest symbolically performed each year in the earthly tabernacle. Purification in heaven, with the better sacrifice, fulfilled the typology of what God had instituted for the people of God. If understood in this way, the Levitical sacrifices and offerings all acted as placeholders for the true sacrifice Jesus would make once and for all in the heavenly realms.
For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.Hebrews 9:24 (NRSV)
The high priest could only stand before the Ark of the Covenant after filling the Holy of Holies with the smoke of incense. This fragrant haze would obscure the Ark from the high priest’s gaze, but would also obscure God’s Shekinah cloud of glorious fire and glowing smoke from the high priest’s gaze.
Tell your brother Aaron not to come just at any time into the sanctuary inside the curtain before the mercy seat that is upon the ark, or he will die; for I appear in the cloud upon the mercy seat . . .
He shall take a censer full of coals of fire from the altar before the Lord, and two handfuls of crushed sweet incense, and he shall bring it inside the curtain and put the incense on the fire before the Lord, that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy seat that is upon the covenant, or he will die.Leviticus 16:3, 12-13 (NRSV)
Jesus, God the Son, did not need to obscure Himself in the heavenly sanctuary, for He is God. He could stand in the gaze of God and He could Himself gaze upon God, for therein is the Godhead, God-Three-In-One.
Nor was it to offer himself again and again, as the high priest enters the Holy Place year after year with blood that is not his own; for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself.Hebrews 9:25-26 (NRSV)
The earthly high priest, being a flawed human being, had to take the lives of bulls and goats—mere creatures which could hardly have been said to give their lives willingly—and take that innocent blood into the Holy of Holies after elaborate and time-consuming cleansing rituals. A crimson rope with tiny golden bells was tied to his ankle in case he displeased God in some way, or did not offer the blood or the incense in right manner.
This was not groundless fear! It had already happened that priests had cavalierly offered unholy fire to God, and they had died immediately for it.
Now Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, each took his censer, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered unholy fire before the Lord, such as he had not commanded them. And fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.Leviticus 10:1-2 (NRSV)
And the high priest had to repeat this dangerous and delicate mission once each year, for there would be no propitiation for the sins of the people without this purification.
But Jesus, perfect and pure, with Himself as willing sacrifice, entered the true Holy of Holies, the throne room of God, and presented Himself for all time and eternity as perfect, permanent propitiation.
And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.Hebrews 9:27-28 (NRSV)
Propitiation is the act that makes atonement possible—and atonement repairs what was damaged. Since Jesus offered perfect and permanent propitiation, it means what was damaged is now perfectly and permanently repaired.
It is done.
It is finished.
As the writer indicated, mortals die once, and Jesus, fully man, died once. But also fully God, Jesus rose from the dead and now lives to return at the time of judgement to bring to safety all those who have been eagerly looking for Him.