Fifth Sunday in Lent: Hebrews 9:11-15

The carefully organized argument of Hebrews seeks to prove that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Scriptures. Those who saw the things of the old covenant as the epitome of God’s revelation have not yet understood their purpose. “They serve a copy and show of the heavenly things” (Hebrews 8:5). When the new has come, the old must pass away, not because it was evil, but because it always pointed toward what was to come.

Hebrews 9 opens with a description of the Tabernacle, drawing on details from passages like Exodus 25-28, Leviticus 16:12-13, Exodus 16:33-34, and Numbers 17:10. “Of these things we cannot now speak in detail” (Hebrews 9:5), but they figure into the overall picture. These things are not there to make the Tabernacle look nice, as if they spruced up the room or made it more conducive to devotion. They, like the Tabernacle, looked forward to the coming fulfillment in Christ.

The primary focus, however, is on the curtain that seperates the Holy of Holies. There is nothing barring entrance for the priests into the first section, but the curtain sets the inner section apart. Into this section, only the high priest may enter but once a year “and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people” (Hebrews 9:6-7). So long as the first section remains, the way into the second section is not yet open. As long as the God-given commandments regarding the old covenant were still in force, the curtain remains standing. The fulness has not yet come. Everything within the first section applies to the old regulations “for the body,” thing which cannot perfect the conscious. “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4).

I think it’s worth mentioning at this point that we can easily miss the point of this passage if we assume that the entire point of the first section is in its “looking forward.” If the Tabernacle only has meaning within the New Testament, then why would God command it, since the Old Testament Church could not understand it? Their knowledge was incomplete, of course, but the ark as a way of showing God’s presence among His people had meaning also in its own day. The argument here in Hebrews is not that the first section only has meaning in the new covenant, but that the old covenant taught through these types about the coming Christ. The old covenant is not the whole of God’s revelation, as the unbelieving Jews thought, nor are types limited in their meaning to only what is prefigured!

When Christ the Great High Priest appeared, however, He entered into the heavenly Tabernacle of which the earthly one was a copy (Hebrews 8:5). Like the high priests of the earthly tent, He also entered carrying blood, His own. What had been prefigured was now a reality. Animal blood could “sanctify for the purification of the flesh,” making one eligible for worshipping the Lord, but it could not clear the conscience. Only the blood of Christ, offered once and once only, purifies the conscience, because only the perfect blood of Christ could wash away sin. The constant repetition of the sacrfices of the old covenant showed that they were incapable of forgiving sins, because they were incomplete. Sin is not a matter of balancing the checkbook once a year, because sin is not a matter of line items. We are not guilty of a certain, albeit large, number of sins to which we continually add, but we are guilty of sin, because a failure in one point of the Law means becoming guilty of breaking the whole Law (James 2:10). The repeated sacrifices could not forgive sin, therefore, because either sin is forgiven or it is not forgiven. It cannot be partially forgiven. Christ, offering up His blood once only, covered over sin as a whole.

Therefore, because Christ’s death covers over the “transgressions committed under the first covenant,” the old covenant has come to an end. There is no longer a need to continue those things, because the imperfect and partial has given way to the perfect and complete. The things which belonged to the first section have served their God-commanded purpose, and therefore are no longer needed. We no longer need fear, because the way through the curtain has been opened by Christ (Hebrews 10:19-20). “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:22-25).