June 30, 2019
CONSTRASTS IN THE PRIESTLY MINISTRY
(17 of 30 in a series through Hebrews)
I remember the first time the doctor told me that I needed glasses. I was about twenty-years-old, so I had gone a while seeing the world as I had, and I would have guessed I had pretty good eye-sight. No, I can say more. I was quite confident I had good eye-sight. But I hadn’t been to the eye doctor in quite a while, and someone convinced me to go.
Now, if you’ve been, you know how the system works. You sit in a chair and the doctor puts different lenses in front of your eyes, asking you to choose between two options. He’ll say something like, “Which is clearer, one or two?” Then, he’ll say, “That’s number one,” pulling down a set of lenses, and “That’s number two,” removing that first set of lenses and pulling down another. And so it continues, as you pick between three and four, five and six, etc., depending on how bad your eye-sight is or how much worse it’s gotten since you’ve last been to the eye doctor.
Well, as I mentioned, I felt pretty confident going in. So as I was answering all the questions, picking this number over that one and telling him what letters I could read, I felt like I was a student acing a test. I thought to myself that this appointment was going to end with the doctor telling me, “You really wasted your time coming in here; you see quite well,” and with me responding, “I know, but some people were trying to convince me that I should go have my vision checked.”
Consequently, when near the end of the appointment, the doctor put down a set of lenses over my eyes and said, “This is how you currently see,” I thought, “I know, doctor, that’s what I’ve been thinking. I don’t need glasses.” But before I could even complete the thought, he removed those lenses, brought down another pair, and said, “And this is how clearly you should be able to see.” And I honestly couldn’t believe it. I almost thought he was making a joke, intentionally making that first set of lenses blurry when compared to the second.
I was even more surprised a couple weeks later when I came back, picked up my glasses, and walked out into a world where I could see leaves on the trees. I genuinely thought that you weren’t supposed to be able to recognize people at a distance, make out street signs until you were almost right upon them, and a host of other things.
It was only when I could see clearly that I began to realize just how insufficient my eye-sight had been for years. It was only when I was able to contrast my former vision with my newfound vision when wearing glasses that I saw just how lacking my vision had been.
This is one of the ways to understand what is going on in Hebrews 9:1-14. The original recipients of this letter were perhaps feeling worn down. We’ll see in chapter 10 that they’d endured persecution. And it may well be that they had simply grown to the point of thinking, “I can’t keep waking up wondering what will happen to my family today. Who knows if we’ll be publicly ridiculed, have our property seized, or worse, because we are followers of Jesus. So they’d come up with the seemingly convenient option of walking away from Jesus but going back to the old covenant system of going down to the temple, having the priest make sacrifices for you, etc. After all, that was the way they’d worshipped the God of the Bible before they’d heard of Jesus. Surely it’d be fine now. In short, revolving your worshiping around the priests at the temple and not suffering persecution seemed better than following Jesus and being persecuted for it. The logic is not that hard to follow.
However, that logic only prevails if we ignore things like sin, judgment, and eternity, doesn’t it? And so what the author of Hebrews does in this section is once more to show the superiority of Jesus’ priestly work in atoning for sins. And he does it through a series of contrasts. In other words, the old covenant priesthood, revolving around the temple and animal sacrifices, looks fine until you set it up alongside Jesus and his high priestly work. You might say that the author of Hebrews is saying, “This is what the old covenant priesthood is,” and when the hearers say, “I know; it’s good,” he’s pulling down the lens to reveal Jesus’ priesthood and saying, “And that’s how it’s supposed to be.” And suddenly, in light of the contrast, the inferiority of the old covenant priesthood and superiority of Jesus’ priesthood will be clear. In other words, I believe that the aim of this text is to allow the hearers of this letter to experience something like I did at the eye doctor.
We’ll see in this text, then, three contrasts: a contrast in place, offerings, and outcome. Let’s begin with the first—a contrast in place.
A contrast in place
The author of Hebrews begins by describing the place, the tabernacle—the tent—that the old covenant priests entered in order to perform their rituals of worship and sacrifice. This would later be pictured with the temple as well, but the author uses the reference of the tabernacle probably because that’s what was first set up under Moses. Here’s what he writes in verses 1-5, “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.”
This is simply a description of what the tabernacle was like. It was divided into two sections. In the first section, called the Holy Place, there was a lampstand and a table with bread on it. That bread was called the “bread of presence” or the “showbread.” And the priests—but only the priests—were able to go into this first section. But they actually had to go into this section daily. The author mentions in verse 6, “These preparations having thus been made, the priests go regularly into the first section, performing their ritual duties.”
What he’s describing are all the tasks that the priest had to do in this section of the tabernacle on a daily basis. Each day, in the morning and the evening, they’d have certain duties. They’d have to trim the lamps (Exod 27:20-21), make sacrifices two different times (Exod 29:38-42), and weekly replace the loaves of bread on the table. There were always rituals going on in this first section of the tabernacle that could only be entered by the priests. It was constant.
Then, there was another section of the tabernacle behind a second curtain called the “Most Holy Place,” as our text says. This section was the place where God would manifest his presence with the ark of the covenant. Our text tells us that this section also contained the golden alter of incense and that the ark contained a few items—a pot of manna, Aaron’s staff that budded when God showed that he was his chosen priest under the old covenant, and the tablets of the law of Moses. And then, he reminds us that on top of the ark were images of cherubim.
But what is of particular importance with this second section, this most holy place, is that only the high priest goes here and even then only one a year. We read in verse 7, “But into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year.” In other words, this is extremely restricted access into the presence of God. If you wanted to approach God and dwell in his presence, then you could only enter God’s presence once a year and really you weren’t entering God’s presence at all. Or, we could say that you were only entering God’s presence through the high priest, representing you, and mediating before God on your behalf.
That was all the access one could have to God’s presence in the old covenant. And the author adds in verse 8, “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 this present age),” by which he means as long as this tabernacle structure and the rituals performed therein are still valid, there will always and only be restricted access to God. It wasn’t going to get any better under the old covenant administration.
That’s a look at the place. That’s where the priest did his duties—in a tent, that constantly reminded the worshiper that God was greatly inaccessible to him or her. And, if these Jewish believers were like me at the eye doctor that day, they might say, “I know. It’s pretty good, isn’t it?” But the author of Hebrews is saying, “No, it isn’t. This is how things are under Jesus.” And then he shows us the superior place that Jesus ministers and reminds us of the continual access we have to God through him.
We see it in verse 11 as the author writes, “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” (vv. 11-12a).
You’ll probably remember this from chapter 8 as well, but when Jesus did his priestly ministry, the author argued that he didn’t do it in this earthly tent. He went into heaven itself. He entered the very throne room of God. And he invites us to draw near to the throne of God, approaching him consistently and constantly in confidence. That’s how chapter 4 ended, encouraging us to approach the throne of God with confidence, continually, because we can.
One reason we may struggle with approaching God in prayer, for example, is because we’ve lost sight of what an amazing privilege this is. Under the old covenant, you couldn’t dwell in the presence of God, approaching his throne in boldness, in the same way we can today. It is only because our high priest is always at his right hand, always interceding for us, always telling us that we’re welcome to commune with, rest in the presence of, and delight in our God.
Like when I walked out of the eye doctor’s office and realized that seeing leaves on trees were possible, these Jewish believers may have missed that being able to approach God and dwell in his very presence was possible not just one day a year through the representative of Aaron or his sons, but it is possible all of the time through the invitation of Jesus who is always at the right hand of God. Let’s make sure we haven’t forgotten the glory of this as well.
So, we first see a contrast in place. Next, we see a contrast in offering.
A contrast in offering
The author of Hebrews mentions that when the high priest went into that most holy place once a year, he went with blood. He writes, “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” (v. 7).
What is he talking about? Well, even on that one day a year—the day of atonement—the high priest couldn’t just waltz into the most holy place. He had to take the blood of a goat. And even then, he was really only targeting unintentional sins. The one caught committing a high-handed or intentional sin was simply punished, often being killed. There’s no atonement for that sin under the old covenant. When David says in Psalm 51:16, “For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering,” he wasn’t just being pious, realizing that God wanted more than a mere sacrifice of an animal. He was—at least in part—acknowledging that there was no sacrifice prescribed under the old covenant for adultery and murder. What was prescribed was death. That’s why the high priest offered sacrifices for unintentional sins, as the text says.
So, under the old covenant, that’s your representative. The high priest goes into God’s presence on your behalf once a year with an offering of a goat intended only to deal with your unintentional sins.
But brothers and sisters, Jesus comes with much more. The author writes in verses 11-12, “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.”
When Jesus offered his sacrifice, he offered something not less valuable than us (e.g. a goat) but something much more valuable. He offered himself. As the God-man, he gave his life on the cross. In other words, when the Jews handed Jesus over to the Roman officials to be crucified, this wasn’t some out-of-control accident of history. Jesus made it very clear that no one was taking his life from him. He was giving it. He could have stopped all of the events that led to his crucifixion at any moment. But he didn’t. He gave himself because more was going on than the execution of a man via crucifixion. What was going on was the offering of the God-man to atone for the sins of his people. And he didn’t atone merely for unintentional sins committed in the last year. He atoned for all the sins of his people at all times.
Therefore, we have eternal redemption. These Jewish believers may well have found a way to avoid persecution by walking away from Jesus, but they were going to have to suffer judgment for their sins. There’s only one offering that provides complete forgiveness—eternal redemption—and that is the sacrifice of Christ. Old Testament believers were saved only because these priestly works pointed to the ultimate priestly work in Jesus. In and of themselves, they were ultimately empty. So, to leave Jesus was run to them was to leave their only hope for salvation.
So, we’ve seen a contrast in place and a contrast in offering. Finally, we see a contrast in outcome.
A contrast in outcome
What was the result of the high priest taking the blood of bulls and goats once a year, the other priests doing their various rituals, and all of the washings and regulations prescribed under the old covenant? The author of Hebrews writes, “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 till the time of reformation” (vv. 9-10).
The outcome was that all the work of the priests around and in the tabernacle (and later, temple) was that they couldn’t do anything about your guilty conscience.
God has made us with a conscience. Paul would argue in the book of Romans that all of us know God’s commands because he makes them known to all men in their hearts. Consequently, people who may rail against the very existence of God find themselves compelled to try to excuse their own actions or accuse others of wrong. And every time they do this they’re showing that they know God’s law, no matter how much they may deny it. Why are they offering excuses or making accusations if they don’t know God’s moral order?
And the real downside of this reality for the unbeliever is that their conscience rightly condemns them. They can hope that the passing of time will silence it or doing good things will silence it. But that doesn’t work. The mere passing of time can never free your guilty conscience. All the good works in the world will do nothing to remove the weight and condemnation of sin that rests on your guilty conscience. Your conscience screams, “You deserve to die.” And we know that their conscience tells them they deserve to die because Romans 1:32 tells us that “they know . . . that those who practice such things deserve to die.” You can try to wish it away, but in those moments of silence, when you’re all alone, you feel the sentence of death your conscience is pronouncing.
And what our text tells us is that the work of the priests under the old covenant did nothing about their consciences. So, even if you avoid persecution but can’t appease your conscience, what does it matter?
But Jesus’ work as a high priest is different. The author of Hebrews says, in showing the contrast between the Levitical priests’ work and Christ’s work, “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” (vv. 11-14).
When Jesus, as the God-man, gave himself as an offering for sin by the power of the Spirit, he did it so that we might have purified, cleansed consciences and be able to serve God. I noted that because of our sin, our conscience cries out that we deserve to die. Well, Jesus comes along and says, “I died for you.” Through faith we are united with him so that we can say, ‘I’ve died with Christ.” Justice for our sins has been meted out. Payment complete. Because he is our representative, his death counts for us. Thus, we can say, “I died with Christ.” But because he is also our substitute, we also get to say, “He died for me,” and so we get to live. But we live without condemnation. We live without guilt. We live with a purified conscience. That’s what Christ’s priestly work does.
And it is only from that place of a purified conscience before God that someone is able to serve the living God from the heart. If you attempt to serve God from a place of trying to purify your conscience, you’ll eventually give up. You can’t get there. As we said earlier, no amount of good works by us can cleanse us from our guilty, condemning consciences. But if you realize your conscience is purified because of the work of Christ for you, then from that platform, you can devote your life to serve the living God.
When you realize that he has cleansed you from the guilt of your sexual sin, covetousness, greed, selfishness, and malice, then you can begin to walk in sexual purity, thankfulness for others, charity, selflessness, and love for your neighbor.
In other words, what lay at stake with these Jewish believers who wanted to turn from Christ back to the practices of the old covenant, was not only salvation (as if that weren’t enough). They were also turning away from purified consciences and obedient lives. Wandering from Jesus will ultimately show itself in rebellion to God’s commandments because obedience must stem from the foundation of a purified conscience, which is only found through faith in the work of Christ alone.
Therefore, this morning, I want us to stop for a second and look through the lens of all that Christ’s work has accomplished for us. And then, let us repent of any rebellion against him, delight in the redemptive blessings we have through our crucified and risen King, and then walk in joyful obedience to him. Living in his presence with clear consciences daily. And let us demonstrate that as our response by coming to the table. Amen.