Now the first covenant also had regulations for ministry and an earthly sanctuary. For a tabernacle was set up, and in the first room, which is called the holy place, were the lampstand, the table, and the presentation loaves. Behind the second curtain, the tabernacle was called the most holy place. It contained the gold altar of incense and the ark of the covenant, covered with gold on all sides, in which there was a gold jar containing the manna, Aaron’s staff that budded, and the tablets of the covenant. The cherubim of glory were above it overshadowing the mercy seat. It is not possible to speak about these things in detail right now.
With these things set up this way, the priests enter the first room repeatedly, performing their ministry. But the high priest alone enters the second room, and he does that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offers for himself and for the sins of the people committed in ignorance. The Holy Spirit was making it clear that the way into the most holy place had not yet been disclosed while the first tabernacle was still standing. This is a symbol for the present time, during which gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the worshiper’s conscience. They are physical regulations and only deal with food, drink, and various washings imposed until the time of restoration. – Hebrews 9:1–10 (HCSB)
Our author, having just explained that the Mosaic Law, the Tabernacle and Temple, and the whole of the Levitical Priesthood, was a shadow of that which was shown to Moses on the mountain, proceeds to explain to us some of the features of that shadow. We’ll see in our next installment that the purpose of doing this is to later explain the original from which the shadow was formed.
After explaining the physical structure of the Temple, and some of the furnishings and decorations, the author proceeds to discuss the activity of the priests as they went about their ministry.
First, he explains that the sanctuary was split into two sections. The first called the Holy Place contained the lampstand, the table, and some ceremonial bread. Separating that room from the next was a thick curtain. After this curtain was a room called the Most Holy Place (IE Holy of Holies). In this room was the incense altar, the ark of the covenant which contained a jar containing manna, Aaron’s staff, and the covenant tablets. On the Mercy Seat was perched two cherubim, in addition to the various cherubim which were embroidered into the curtain and in other various places.
Our author then moves to discuss the Levitical ministry and how it relates to these two rooms.
In the first room, the priests regularly and repeatedly enter to do their various work. This would involve the various offerings prescribed in the Levitical law, as well as other ceremonial activities. The culmination of this work is found once a year when the High Priest enters the Holy of Holies to make atonement for himself, and for the people.
Our author explains that this restriction to once a year atonement was put in place by God the Holy Spirit in order to reveal that the way into the Most Holy Place had not yet been disclosed. This is perhaps a strange statement at first glance. The High Priest only being allowed into the Most Holy Place once a year somehow reveals that the way into the Most Holy Place had not been disclosed? This is because our author has shifted our attention to the Antitypical Most Holy Place, that is God’s immediate presence. The ministry of the Levitical Priesthood could not bring someone into God’s immediate presence, and this was intentional on God’s part.
Our author concludes by explaining in plain language something that our Dispensationalist brothers and sisters fail to grasp. The sacrifices of the Old Testament, and the hypothetical reinstated sacrifices of the restored Israel after the rapture, cannot perfect a worshiper’s conscience. It cannot bring peace with God. They serve as a type which foreshadows the true and better High Priest which we have in Christ, through whom all the saved are saved. This was the purpose of the Old Covenant, to point to the New Covenant.
- For more specific information about these features, take a look at Exodus 25, and Leviticus 24.
- It was typical in Ancient Near Eastern covenants for the Suzerian (the greater party of a covenant) to place a copy of the covenant in the sanctuary of their God. The storing of this covenant in the Holy of Holies follows this pattern. The vassal (the lesser party) also kept a copy, this is seen in the command for the kings of Israel to produce a personal copy of the Law upon their enthronement.
- The use of the phrase “for the present time” is the primary internal evidence used to demonstrate that the Levitical system was still in operation at the time of the writing of this book. If this is the case, the latest possible date for this letter is AD 68, meaning that a fully developed high Christology which sees Jesus as fully God and consubstantial with the Father was already regularly being preached within 35 years of Christ’s death.