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Hebrews: Worship in the Tabernacle (9:1-10)

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worship in the tabernacle

The author of Hebrews has just expressed that the old covenant is obsolete and had been replaced by the covenant Jeremiah foretold. He now discusses the worship practice associated with the old covenant and the Tabernacle. After this, he will express how each element of that worship pointed ahead to what Jesus has now done.

Describing the Tabernacle

Now the first covenant had regulations for worship and also an earthly sanctuary. A tabernacle was set up. In its first room were the lampstand and the table with its consecrated bread; this was called the Holy Place. Behind the second curtain was a room called the Most Holy Place, which had the golden altar of incense and the gold-covered ark of the covenant. This ark contained the gold jar of manna, Aaron’s staff that had budded, and the stone tablets of the covenant. Above the ark were the cherubim of the Glory, overshadowing the atonement cover. But we cannot discuss these things in detail now.

Hebrews 9:1-5 NIV

The latter part of Exodus, along with Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, describes the regulations of the first covenant. Exodus 25-27; 30:1-10 describes the specifications for the Tabernacle and its furnishings, while Exodus 35-38 describes its actual construction. The Tabernacle was a tent that could be dismantled as necessary when Israel broke camp during their wilderness wandering. And the Tabernacle was set back up when they stopped.

Layout of the Tabernacle

The Tabernacle was a tent with two rooms, separated by a curtain. And surrounding the Tabernacle was a fenced-in courtyard. Most of the activity around the Tabernacle occurred in the courtyard. It contained the altar of burnt offerings, where the priests offered most of the sacrifices. It also included a large basin used for ceremonial washing by the priests before they performed their duties.

On entering into the Tabernacle, you came first to the Holy Place. This room contained three pieces of furniture. There was a seven-branched lampstand for lighting the room, a table for offering bread, and the altar of incense. The priests would replace the Bread of Presence regularly. The priests would also refuel the lamp and offer incense twice a day.

Moving through the curtain at the end of the Holy Place takes you into the Most Holy Place. This room had two pieces of furniture that fit together. The ark of the covenant was a box that contained the tablets written on by God. And this box was covered by a lid known as the mercy seat. On this lid, there are a pair of cherubim with outstretched wings.

Placing the Altar of Incense

You may have noticed that my description above does not quite line up with the description given in Hebrews. In Exodus, the altar of incense was outside the curtain, in the Holy Place. The author of Hebrews seems to place it within the Most Holy Place. There have been a couple of potential solutions given for this apparent discrepancy. But the one that makes the most sense to me relates to the word used in the altar placement.

Hebrews says that the lampstand and table are in the Holy Place. In contrast, the Most Holy Place had the altar and the ark. The ark is not necessarily in the inner room. But it is for the inner room. Incense from this altar was taken into the Most Holy Place whenever the high priest entered to offer the annual sacrifice of atonement. So a primary focus of this altar was concerned with what happened in the Most Holy Place. And so, the author connected the altar of incense with the Most Holy Place in his description.

Cheribum of the Glory

On top of the mercy seat were a pair of cherubim. Their wings were outstretched and touched over the center of the cover. Cherubim are almost always closely associated with the presence of God. And that is true here as well. In Numbers 7:89, when Moses spoke to God, he heard God’s voice coming from between the cherubim. God is described in 2 Samuel 6:2 as enthroned between the cherubim on the ark. And, in Leviticus 16:13, we find that when the high priest entered to offer the atoning sacrifice, he would take some incense so that the smoke will hide the mercy seat and he won’t die.

We Can’t Discuss in Detail

After giving a thumbnail sketch of the Tabernacle, the author implied that he could say much about each of those elements. But that discussion would have to wait for another time. Personally, I wish he had given us more insight into the significance of the rest of the furnishings. I think that could have been quite interesting.

The Day of Atonement

When everything had been arranged like this, the priests entered regularly into the outer room to carry on their ministry. But only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance.

Hebrews 9:6-7 NIV

The Tabernacle was the center of worship for Israel. There was quite a bit of sacrifice and ritual in both the courtyard and the outer room. Any priest was allowed into the outer room. They would go in to fill and light the lampstand and replace the bread. And each morning and evening, they would burn incense on the altar of incense.

But the most significant activities were centered around the day of atonement. On this day, the high priest would offer a sacrifice for his sin, take some of the blood into Most Holy Place, and sprinkle it before the ark. He would then sacrifice a second animal and take its blood into the inner room, sprinkling its blood before the ark as well. The blood from these sacrifices would atone for the sins of the high priest and for the rest of the people.

The author of Hebrews will spend a considerable about of effort in comparing the day of atonement at the earthly Tabernacle with what Jesus did. He has already described Jesus as a great high priest. Superior to the Levitical high priest. And he will go on to compare the sacrifice offered by the Levitical high priest to the gift offered by Jesus.

The Most Holy Place Was Closed

The Holy Spirit was showing by this that the way into the Most Holy Place had not yet been disclosed as long as the first tabernacle was still functioning.

Hebrews 9:8 NIV

The Holy Spirit is the one who leads us into the truth found in the Scripture. And the author of Hebrews tells us that the Holy Spirit was using the activities of the priests, described in the previous two verses, to teach us something. He tells us that as long as the earthly Tabernacle was functioning, the way into the Most Holy Place was hidden.

A curtain hid the Most Holy Place from access. With the single exception of the activities on the Day of Atonement, entry into God’s presence was strictly forbidden. The Holy Place was as close to God as the priests could get. But when the earthly Tabernacle was removed, access to God became available to all. In the heavenly sanctuary, there is no Holy Place outside of God’s presence. The heavenly sanctuary is only the Most Holy Place.

Waiting for the New Order

This is an illustration for the present time, indicating that the gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper. They are only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings—external regulations applying until the time of the new order.

Hebrews 9:9-10 NIV

The present time is the time of the new order or covenant. And this is in contrast to the old covenant and its regulations concerning the Tabernacle and the duties of the priests. We know now, in this present time, that the sacrifices offered under the old covenant did not purify the one making the offering. They could never grant a person access into the Most Holy Place, into God’s presence.

These regulations were required under the old covenant. But what they did was to point out the need for holiness. That only those who are holy can stand before God. But they were unable to accomplish what they illustrated. All they did was clean the person’s outside without making any real change. But the sacrifice Jesus offered changed that. And that is where the author of Hebrews goes next.

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Ed Jarrett

Just an old clay jar that God continues to see fit to use in his kingdom's work. I am retired, married with 2 children, and 4 grandchildren. I have followed Jesus for many years. And I love to share what He has given me from His word.

A Note to Readers

The views expressed here are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect those of any other person, group, or organization. While I believe they reflect the teachings of the Bible, I am a fallible human and subject to misunderstanding. Please feel free to leave any comments or questions about this post in the comments section below. I am always interested in your feedback.

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