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Hebrews: Entering the Heavenly Sanctuary (9:16-28)

In the first part of Hebrews 9, the author briefly described the earthly tabernacle built by Moses and the service performed there. He went on then to discuss how Jesus, as our great high priest entered into a more perfect tabernacle. A tabernacle that was the reality pointed to by the earthly tabernacle. And that Jesus is the mediator of the new covenant between God and his people.

In the remainder of this chapter, the author discusses the necessity of Jesus’ blood within the new covenant. And he also continues to compare the earthly tabernacle and sacrifices with the more perfect tabernacle and Jesus’ sacrifice.

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Executing a Will

In the case of a will, it is necessary to prove the death of the one who made it, because a will is in force only when somebody has died; it never takes effect while the one who made it is living. 

Hebrews 9:16-17 NIV

A Translation Note

The word that the NIV, and many other translations, translate as “will” is the Greek word “diathēkē.” This word is generally translated as covenant. In the preceding verse, Jesus is said to be the mediator of the new covenant (diathēkē). And he died as a ransom for the sins committed under the old covenant (diathēkē). And verse 20 refers to the blood of the covenant (diathēkē). Blood was used to purify the tabernacle and all it contained.

Because of this, the New International Commentary thinks it best to translate this word as “covenant” in these verses as well. And to understand it as referring to the old covenant. A covenant that was broken by the disobedience of the people. And whose breaking required death. And I find their argument to be persuasive.

Breaking of the Old Covenant

Whether you understand this to be about a will or a covenant, there are some challenges in understanding what the author is attempting to say here. I do prefer the New International Commentary’s translating it as a covenant. But that in itself does not add clarity to this passage.

It helps to remember that there was more to this covenant than just an agreement between God and Israel. It also included that they would be his people. And that he would be their God. The terms of the covenant also included consequences for breaking the covenant. These consequences are most clearly spelled out in Deuteronomy 28:15-68. And they essentially resulted in the destruction or death of the nation.

So we can understand this passage to say “that in the case of a [broken] covenant, the one who broke it must die. Only by this is the validity of the covenant verified”. This will certainly not satisfy everyone. But I believe it helps this short passage fit into the greater context of the overall passage. Jesus’ death paid the consequences for breaking the old covenant that we were under. As well as inaugurating the new covenant we are under now.

Blood of the Covenant

This is why even the first covenant was not put into effect without blood. When Moses had proclaimed every command of the law to all the people, he took the blood of calves, together with water, scarlet wool and branches of hyssop, and sprinkled the scroll and all the people. He said, “This is the blood of the covenant, which God has commanded you to keep.” In the same way, he sprinkled with the blood both the tabernacle and everything used in its ceremonies. In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.

Hebrews 9:18-22 NIV

This passage looks back to Exodus 40, Leviticus 8, and other smaller passages. In these, you find a description of the consecration of the tabernacle and the priests. And the blood of a sacrificial animal, along with anointing oil, was used throughout the process.

What I understand of ancient covenants is that blood was used to seal the covenant. But more than that, it represented the penalty for breaking the covenant. The one responsible for breaking a covenant sealed by blood would pay by shedding their blood.

No Forgiveness

Leviticus 17:10-12 is an interesting passage that can seem strange to us today. It deals with a prohibition against the consumption of blood. Anyone who eats blood would be cut off from the rest of the community. You are no longer a part of the covenant people.

The reason for that is that the animal’s life is in their blood. And that blood is given to make atonement for our own lives. Under the old covenant, whenever an animal is killed, its blood is poured out. And this generally is done at the foot of the altar. By doing so, that animal’s life is given to atone for my sin. The animal is taking my place. This is represented in the sacrifice of atonement. But it is also true every time an animal was killed, with their blood poured out at the altar.

The Greater Sancutary

It was necessary, then, for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these sacrifices, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with human hands that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence. 

Hebrews 9:23-24 NIV

In the previous verses, the author has described the tabernacle built by Moses and its furnishings. And then detailed the requirements for purifying that tabernacle in preparation for its use. He has made it clear that this tabernacle is only a shadow of the reality that was to come (Heb. 8:5). But all that God instructed Moses concerning this tabernacle has significance in the greater sanctuary in heaven.

Purification of the Sanctuary

Animal sacrifices purified the earthly tabernacle. This purification was done when the tabernacle was set up. But it also happened at other times during their year. We can understand the need for a tabernacle built under the old covenant to undergo purification. But what about this greater sanctuary in heaven? Why must it be purified? Was it not already perfect?

I believe there was no need for that sanctuary to be purified from sin. But still, the pattern established for the earthly copy does have relevance for the heavenly sanctuary. The initial act of purification for the tabernacle was, at least in part, dedicating it and setting it apart for use as the place to meet with God. And in this sense, I believe the heavenly sanctuary was also dedicated by a greater sacrifice than goats and bulls.

Entering the Sanctuary

The high priest would enter into the inner room of the sanctuary on an annual basis, appearing before God to make atonement for himself and the people. So Jesus, as our great high priest, has entered into the sanctuary to appear before God. But the sanctuary he entered was not the tabernacle or temple that replaced it. Instead, he entered into the heavenly sanctuary. And there he appeared, not before a representation of God’s presence, but before God himself.

What is this greater sanctuary that Jesus has entered into? We are told that human hands did not make it. And that Jesus, when he entered into it, was in God’s presence. This greater sanctuary would seem to be heaven itself rather than a specific place in heaven. This sanctuary is the heavenly holy of holies, the dwelling place of God. And all who are in Christ enter into it with him.

The Greater Sacrifice

Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own. Otherwise Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But he has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. 

Hebrews 9:25-26 NIV

The author here continues to contrast the old covenant life with the new. Under the law, the priests offered sacrifices regularly. The sacrifice on the day of atonement was the most significant, and it is the one that the author focuses on. This was an annual sacrifice to make atonement for the people’s sins. And it was the one time each year that the high priest would enter in the Most Holy Place.

Once and for All

Jesus entered into the heavenly sanctuary as our great high priest, offering the sacrifice of atonement. But rather than an animal sacrifice, he is offering himself. Jesus was the perfect sacrifice that could take away sin and enable us to live holy lives.

But, unlike the Jewish high priest, Jesus did not enter this sanctuary on an annual basis. He brought the sacrifice of himself into the sanctuary one time. And that was enough. There was no need for him to repeat the offering over and over again. And the reason for that is apparent. As we will see later (Heb. 10:4), the blood of bulls and goats could never take away sin. But Jesus’ sacrifice made people holy forever (Heb. 10:10).

The Culmination of the Ages

It might be tempting for us to understand the culmination of the ages as something that is yet to come. But I think it is clear that expression is used here to refer to Jesus’ death on the cross. The whole history of humanity had been pointing forward to his coming and his sacrifice. There is more history to come. And God is not finished working among us. But Jesus’ sacrifice was what all of history had looked forward to. And we now look back to.

Doing Away with Sin

The author tells us here that by the sacrifice of himself, Jesus did away with sin. That seems contrary to our personal experience. Even as a believer, sin is a present reality in my own life.

Significantly, the author says Jesus did away with sin rather than sins. The singular sin refers to the sinful nature that lives in us. And it is that nature that the author refers to here. In Romans 6:2, Paul refers to those who have died to sin. Those who are in Christ have participated in his death and resurrection. We have died to that sinful nature that once controlled us and are now free to live by the Spirit.

It should be clear that sin is still active in my life. But I have been freed from its dominion. Jesus’ death on the cross set me free from sin and allows me now to live for him. Something I would not have been able to do otherwise.

Coming to Bring Salvation

Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.

Hebrews 9:27-28 NIV

The initial observation the author makes here is self-evident. We will die once. Death is inevitable for each of us unless Christ returns first. His second observation is not as self-evident but is clear from the Scripture. After death comes judgment. We will be judged according to our lives while on the earth. And as people live once and face judgment, so Jesus died once and brought salvation.

Taking Away the Sins of Many

Earlier the author said that Jesus’ death on the cross did away with sin (Heb. 9:26). But here, that Jesus took away the sins of many. The absolute control of the sinful nature over humanity was destroyed at the cross. But the atonement for our sins was not universal. While his death was sufficient and available to all people, it is only applied to some.

Who are those whose sins are taken away? I believe he defines that later in this verse. Jesus will come to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him. Those who have believed and are entering into his rest are looking forward to his return. And those are the ones whose sins have been taken away.

The old covenant sacrifice of atonement covered the sins of the people of God under the old covenant. So, under the new covenant, Jesus’ sacrifice of atonement covers the sins of his people. Those who have believed in him and faithfully follow him.

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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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