In the first ten verses of Hebrews 9, we have a description of the tabernacle in the wilderness, which was a precursor to Solomon’s temple. Thus, the paragraph begins, “Then verily the first covenant had also ordinances of divine service, and a worldly sanctuary” (1). It is “worldly” not, of course, in the sense of being sinful (it is called a “sanctuary” or holy place, after all!), but in contrast to the heavenly sanctuary in which our Lord now ministers (cf. 8:1). In particular, in what follows we have a description of this “worldly sanctuary” belonging to the old covenant in terms of the pieces of furniture in the tabernacle as well as how they were arranged. The author of Hebrews is going to make a major theological point here about the division of the tabernacle into a front and second compartment, which he will continue to apply in the following verses (11, ff).
The construction of the tabernacle is dealt with in the latter half of the book of Exodus (chapters 25-40). There we learn that it was a framed structure covered by various animals’ skins. The tabernacle proper was about 45 feet long by 15 feet wide and 15 feet in height. This was located inside a larger courtyard which was about 75 feet wide by 150 feet in length and surrounded by a wall comprised of hangings of fine twined linen. In the courtyard there was the bronze altar on which the sacrifices were offered and the bronze basin for ceremonial washing. This is not dealt with by our author, however, because he is interested primarily in the way the tabernacle proper was arranged and divided. In particular, in this paragraph the author of Hebrews gives a description of the tabernacle in verses 2-5, followed by the duties of the priests in verses 6-7, and then finishes with the doctrine of the ritual – what all this was meant to teach us – in verses 8-10.
The Description of the Tabernacle (2-5)
In verses 2-5 we are given a tour through the two compartments of the tabernacle. The word “first” in verse 2 is not a reference to the first of two tabernacles, but to the first of two compartments of a single tabernacle, called the Holy Place (“sanctuary,” ver. 2, KJV). The Holy Place was 15 feet wide by 30 feet long by 15 feet high. In this compartment, there was “the candlestick” (or rather, the lampstand), which was made of beaten gold, with three branches coming out of either side of a central stem. It had seven lamps which were kept burning day and night. The lampstand stood on the south side of the Holy Place. On the north side stood the table, made of acacia (“shittim” KJV) wood covered in gold, on which was laid the “shewbread” or “Bread of the Presence,” in two neat rows of six loaves each. This bread was replaced each Sabbath day with fresh loaves.
“And after the second veil” – the first has not been explicitly mentioned, but you had to pass through the first veil to enter into the Holy Place – “the tabernacle which is called the Holiest of all” (3). With these words, the author ushers us into the “Most Holy Place.” This second compartment of the tabernacle was a cube, each side approximately 15 feet in length. It was the Holy of Holies with which the most sacred of the tabernacle furniture was associated: the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant (4-5).
Now in our version, we read that the Holy of holies “had the golden censer” (4). The Greek here (thumiaterion) has been interpreted this way by a number of commentators throughout history, including notable Biblical interpreters such as Anselm, Aquinas, and Luther.1 However, most modern interpreters translate this as “golden altar of incense.” Either way, however, there appears to a problem. If you translate it as in our version, then our author has left out one of most important pieces of furniture in the tabernacle (the altar of incense), which seems very unlikely. Also, there is no golden censer mentioned at all in the description of the tabernacle in Exodus (those kinds of instruments were bronze). On the other hand, if you translate it as referring to the altar of incense, there is also a problem because this altar was in front of and not behind the second veil.
What is the solution? I think that Philip Edgcumbe Hughes and others are probably right when they posit that the point here is not so much the precise location of the altar as its association with the Most Holy Place.2 A theological point is being made here. For it was placed immediately in front of it the Most Holy Place so that when the high priest entered there on the Day of Atonement, he would take burning incense from this altar which would fill the Holiest of all “that he die not” (see Lev. 16:12-13). The incense from the altar along with the blood sprinkled on the mercy seat were together a part of the most important event in the religious life of Israel.
We come then to “the ark of the covenant overlaid round about with gold, wherein was the golden pot that had manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tables of the covenant; and over it the cherubims of glory shadowing the mercyseat” (4-5). It was a wooden box covered in gold, measuring 2.25 feet wide, 3.75 feet long, and 2.25 feet tall. Inside this box, three things were placed: a golden pot with manna, Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tablets of the covenant on which were written the Ten Commandments by the finger of God.
This box had a lid, also covered with gold, called the mercy seat. The term our author uses here is the usual way the Septuagint referred to the lid on the ark. The Hebrew is a bit more prosaic, simply meaning “covering.” However, it is significant that when the Bible speaks of our sins being forgiven, it often uses the language of our sins being covered, as in Psalm 32:1 – “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.” So even the description of the lid in terms of a covering was meant to say something very important. It was on the lid of the ark that the blood of the atoning sacrifice was sprinkled so that the sins of God’s people would be covered and forgiven. Just as significantly, the Greek word used here – hilasterion – is the word used to describe our Lord’s atoning work on the cross in multiple places in the NT (Rom. 3:25; 1 Jn. 2:2; 4:10). It is the word translated in those places by the word “propitiation.” Here again we see just how every part of the tabernacle was pointing in some way to Jesus Christ and to his atoning work on the cross for sinful men and women.
Also on the lid were two cherubim of beaten gold, looking inward toward the mercy seat. They were “cherubim of glory,” not because they were necessarily glorious in themselves, but because between them the glory of God, the Shekinah glory, dwelt: “And there I will meet with thee, and I will commune with thee from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubims which are upon the ark of the testimony” (Exod. 25:22).
The Duties of the Priests (6-7)
In the next two verses, we come to the duties of the priests. The tabernacle was not a museum; it was a workplace for priests. “Now when these things were thus ordained, the priests went always into the first tabernacle [i.e. the Holy Place, the first compartment], accomplishing the service of God. But into the second [i.e. the Most Holy Place, the second compartment] went the high priest alone once every year, not without blood, which he offered for himself, and for the errors [unintentional sins] of the people.”
The point here is that the first compartment, the Holy Place, had a lot of traffic, day in and day out. The priests were “always” there. However, the Holy of Holies was different. No one could enter into this place except once a year on the Day of Atonement, and only the high priest could do that, and only with the blood of a sin offering. On that day, the priest would offer a bull on the bronze altar and take some of its blood along with incense from the golden altar and sprinkle the blood upon the mercy seat for his own sins. He would then take the blood from one of a pair of goats (which had been killed) and sprinkle it upon the altar for the sins of the people of Israel. After accomplishing this, he would come out and confess the sins of Israel over the head of the other goat, symbolically transferring the guilt of Israel to the goat, which was then led out into the wilderness, never to be seen again (see Lev. 16).
The Doctrine of the Ritual (8-10)
Now all this had a meaning. We are told in several ways that the tabernacle was symbolic, that it was meant to be a parable. Thus the author says, “The Holy Ghost this signifying, that the way into the holiest of all was not yet made manifest, while as yet the first tabernacle was yet standing: which was a figure for the time then present” (8-9). In other words, there is an inspired doctrine to the description of the tabernacle and the duties of the priests. The word “figure” in verse 9 is the term “parable.” All this ismeant to be a parable for us of spiritual realities. And the main reality that all this was meant to preach is that “the way into the holiest of all was not yet made manifest.”
By the way, I think it’s important to notice the restraint of our author when it comes to interpreting the meaning of the significance of the tabernacle. In fact, he says that of the things in the tabernacle, “we cannot now speak particularly” (5); that is, he is not going to squeeze some type of spiritual meaning out of every detail of the tabernacle’s furniture. This restraint has not always been shared by Christian interpreters, unfortunately. For instance, one interpreter from the past said that “the almond-shaped cups [of the lampstand] . . . are the saints who are fitted to receive and transmit to others the oil of grace.” Now that’s a nice thought but it is hardly warranted by the text! Another said that “the table is Holy Scripture which supplies the food of life. The loaves are the twelve apostles and their vicars who offer the incense of prayer to God.” He goes on to squeeze meaning even out of the dimensions of the ark, for example, and says that the length of the ark (which was two and a half cubits long) is to be interpreted this way: “One cubit of its length signifies perseverance in doctrine, and the other cubit perseverance in labor, while the extra half-cubit signifies the imperfection of human capacities. . ..”3 Such interpretations are laughable, at best.
There is no need to do any of this anyway, because as we’ve noted above, the Spirit has already indicated the lesson we are to learn. Arguing from the division of the sanctuary as well as the deficiency of the sacrifices, our author shows that the old covenant worship was imperfect in the sense that its rituals could never actually in themselves give us access to God. The division of the sanctuary into two compartments so that only the high priest could enter once a year into the Holy of Holies was meant to show that the way sinful man may have access to God had not yet been fully revealed (8). On the other hand, the deficiency of the sacrifices “which stood only in meats and drinks, and divers washings, and carnal ordinances” (10) was manifest in that they “could not make him that did the service perfect as pertaining to the conscience” (9). They could not actually take away sin.
Nevertheless, underneath these deficiencies that led to the retirement of the old covenant is mankind’s unchanging need. The old covenant may be transitory, but the human problem it points us to is not. The two things above together clearly demonstrate our need for atonement in order to have access to God. They demonstrate that the only way that this can happen is through the shedding of blood. And they demonstrate that this atonement, though prefigured in the sacrifices of the old covenant, had not actually happened yet.
So let’s not miss the great point here. All this assumes our great need of access to God, to find a way into the holiest of all. In particular, I think it is important for us to see that access to God doesn’t just happen anywhere and in any way. There were many temples in the ancient world, but this is the only place God said that he dwelt. And in the tabernacle itself, it wasn’t the courtyard that was the place where God revealed his glory, or even the Holy Place, into which only priests could enter. It was the Most Holy Place, and there alone, in which God’s presence was most manifest. It was over the ark of the covenant, above the mercy seat, between the cherubim, that the Shekinah glory of God shone forth. It was there that God’s glory was revealed, that God’s fellowship was enjoyed, and that God’s forgiveness was imparted. And it is there that our need for Jesus Christ is so abundantly manifest.
So here we have our great need laid out before us. And I think it is worthwhile meditating together for a few moments upon these three themes: our need for God’s glory, God’s fellowship, and God’s forgiveness.
Our need for God’s glory
The highlight of the book of Exodus is not really found on the top of Mount Sinai, but at the end of the book when the tabernacle was finished. For there we are told that “a cloud covered the tent of the congregation, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of the congregation, because the cloud abode thereon, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle” (Exod. 40:34-35). Did you notice that the fact that God’s glory filled the tabernacle is mentioned twice? It was a big deal.
It was a big deal because God’s glory in his tabernacle was the visible symbol of God’s presence and blessing upon Israel. It is why Moses begs God after the children of Israel had sinned in the incident involving the golden calf, “I beseech thee, shew me thy glory” (Exod. 33:18). He wasn’t asking for some personal ecstatic religious experience; he was essentially asking that God not remove his presence and blessing upon the nation. More importantly, he was asking that all that God is be for Israel. What I meanby this is that God’s glory is the public and visible display of his attributes. And so to speak of God’s glory is a summary way of referring to the fullness of all that God is. So to say that we need God’s glory is just to say that we need all that God is to be for us. We need God.
That God’s glory is the sum of his attributes is clear in God’s answer to Moses’ request for God to show him his glory. “And the LORD descended in the cloud, and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed, The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will be no means clear the guilty: visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and fourth generations. And Moses made haste, and bowed his head toward the earth, and worshipped” (Exod. 34:5-8).
We need God in the fulness of all that he is. We need the glory of God. We need to see it and to experience it. It is for this reason that the psalmist prayed, “O God, thou art my God; early will I seek thee: my soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh longeth for thee in a dry and thirsty land, where no water is. To see thy power and thy glory, so as I have seen thee in thy sanctuary” (Ps. 63:1-2). The glory of the Lord is the salvation of his people: “The heavens declare his righteousness [which is often displayed in the rescue of his people], and all the people see his glory” (Ps. 97:6). When the Lord builds up Zion, it is then that he appears in glory (Ps. 102:16).
So let me sum up this point by saying it this way: we need the glory of God because we need God. We need God in the fulness of all that he is: not just this or that attribute, but every attribute – his love and his justice, his holiness and his mercy, his righteousness and his wrath, his power and his gentleness. You were made, my friend, to know God in this way. You were not made for money. You were not made for human fame. You were not made for sex. You were not made for food. You were not made for earthly comforts, gifts though they are from God. No: you were made for God. And as St. Augustine put it so memorably, God made us for himself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in him. And as the Lord says through the prophet, “Fear not: for I am with thee: I will bring thy seed from the east, and gather thee from the west; I will say to the north, Give up; and to the south, Keep not back: bring my sons from far, and my daughters from the ends of the earth; Even every one that is called by my name: for I have created him for my glory, I have formed him; yea, I have made him” (Isa. 43:5-7).
The fact that there was a Holy of holies in the tabernacle was an indication both of the fact of our need for the glory of God as well as the fact that the way to this glory had not yet been manifest. That comes in Jesus Christ.
Our need for God’s fellowship
The Holiest of all was also meant to point us to our need for God’s fellowship. We are meant to have communion with God. It is the tabernacle, God says to Moses, “where I will meet you, to speak there unto thee. And there I will meet with the children of Israel, and the tabernacle shall be sanctified by my glory. And I will sanctify the tabernacle of the congregation and the altar: I will sanctify also both Aaron and his sons, to minister to me in the priest’s office. And I will dwell among the children of Israel, and will be their God. And they shall know that I am the LORD their God, that brought them forth out of the land of Egypt, that I may dwell among them: I am the LORD their God” (Exod. 29:42-46).
In other words, we don’t only want God to be for us, we also want God to be with us. We want his glory to be displayed on our behalf, and we want his presence to be enjoyed in our midst.
And to be sure, there is joy in the presence of God. A number of the psalms testify to this fact, as the following examples show. “There be many that say, Who will shew us any good? LORD, lift thou up the light of thy countenance upon us. Thou hast put gladness in my heart more than in the time that their corn and their wine increased” (Ps 4:6-7). “Thou wilt shew me the path of life: in thy presence is fulness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures forevermore” (Ps. 16:11). “Whom have I in heaven but thee? And there is none upon earth that I desire besides thee. My flesh and my heart faileth: but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion forever. ... But it is good for me to draw near to God” (Ps. 73:25, 26, 28). “How amiable are thy tabernacles, O LORD of hosts! My soul longeth, yea, even fainteth for the courts of the LORD: my heart and my flesh crieth out for the living God. ... For a day in thy courts is better than a thousand. I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, than to dwell in the tents of wickedness. For the LORD God is a sun and a shield: the LORD will give grace and glory: no good thing will he withhold from them that walk uprightly. O LORD of hosts, blessed is the man that trusteth in thee” (Ps. 84:1-2, 10-12).
As human beings created in the image of God, we are meant to live in society, not alone. As God declared of Adam, it was not good for him to be alone, and Eve was created from Adam and for Adam and marriage was established at least in part to meet this fundamental need for fellowship. But the family is but a mirror of a deeper relationship we are meant to have with God. After all, we are created in God’s image, and this means at least that if we are created for fellowship, we are created for fellowship with God. And it is the tragedy of sin from the very beginning that it cuts us off from this fellowship and communion with God.
However, the tabernacle was meant to point men and women to the possibility of this fellowship with God. At the same time, it also showed that the way into the holiest of all was still barred. It is this barrier which is undone in Jesus, and when he died, the veil that separated the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place came down.
Our need for God’s forgiveness
Above all, the tabernacle was a place that pointed to man’s need for forgiveness and atonement before God. The tabernacle was a bloody place, and when the high priest did go into the Most Holy Place, it was always with blood (Heb. 9:7). This is because without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins (Heb. 9:22).
The various barriers of the tabernacle reflected this need. Israelites could enter the courtyard, but only the priests could go into the tabernacle proper. And only the high priest could enter into the holiest of all, and that only one day in the year. All this was meant to point to our sin. It also pointed to the fact that the sacrifices that were offered could not in themselves take away that sin.
In other words, it is our sin that keeps us from having God for us and having God with us. It is our need of forgiveness that is our basic need in the sense that we must have this before we can have anything else.
But thank God, the tabernacle is pointing us forward to Jesus Christ. In the following verses, we are going to see how that Jesus fulfills the reality that the tabernacle pointed toward. He is the one in whom we are granted forgiveness and by whom we can enter into the presence of God. We can have “boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh: and having an high priest over the house of God; let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our conscience sprinkled from an evil conscience [compare to 9:9!], and our bodies washed with pure water” (Heb. 10:19-22).
Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God, gives us entrance into the presence of God by becoming for us a propitiation. He is the mercy seat, the one who stands between God’s law broken by us and the glory of God between the cherubim. In Christ, the glory of God becomes for us, not that which destroys us, but that which saves us. “For through him we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father” (Eph. 2:18). He is the way to God. His blood purges our sins and his righteousness gives us right into God’s presence with joy. Would you enter in? Come and welcome through Jesus Christ!
1 See P. E. Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Eerdmans, 1977), p. 311.
2 Ibid. p. 320-321.
3 Ibid., p. 318.