“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 9:7-10
In the outset of Hebrews 9, we find the author discussing the differences between the old and new covenants. To help us recognize and better understand these differences, the author goes into a detailed discussion of the tabernacle structure and the ancient Israelite worship regulations. This might seem to be an unusual approach, but the author does so to prove to us two crucial points. First, the author wants us to understand that, under the old covenant, we had no direct access to God. Secondly, the author wants us to realize that the old covenant’s regulations were never enough to give us salvation.
In verses 1-8, the author describes the tabernacle’s layout, the items inside the tabernacle, and the high priests’ duties on the Day of Atonement. The author explains these things to show us why we need a new covenant with God. Under the regulations of the old covenant, we had no direct access to God. There was always a barrier between Him and us, and this is illustrated by the veil within the tabernacle. The veil separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the tabernacle. Though the tabernacle represented God’s presence with Israel, His space was isolated and cut-off from the people. No one could enter into the Holy of Holies on their own terms and approach God’s presence. Even the high priest was prohibited from going into God’s space other than on the Day of Atonement. There was no way for humanity to approach God other than the ways God prescribed.
Under the terms of the old covenant, we were separated from God. This is not because God was uncaring or aloof; instead, it was for our protection. Humanity needed this separation and needed these worship regulations so that we would not haphazardly approach God. We are sinful beings, and God cannot be in the presence of sin. His nature is so perfectly holy that His presence would kill us if we were to approach Him while still infected with sin. But because God loves us, and because He wants to draw us near to Him, He showed us how we could have a relationship with Him. He gave Israel the Law to show them how they could appropriately worship Him and live accordingly as His people. The Law provided a path to follow so that Israel could survive with God in their midst.
But there was a problem with the Law, and the author of Hebrews points this out to us. The Law only dealt with external things; it did nothing to change our hearts or change our sinful nature. The offerings and regulations of the Law could not give us clean hearts or clear consciences. Something better had to come; a better sacrifice and a better covenant had to be given so that our hearts would be changed. Something had to change so that we could have direct access to God. All of these things would be achieved in Christ.
Christ has done away with the divide between God and us. Christ has gone behind the veil and given us direct access to the Father. Christ has given us His righteousness so that we can freely and boldly approach the Father whenever we need to do so. Now, when we approach the Father, God no longer sees sinners deserving of condemnation and wrath. Because of Christ, the Father now sees us as His children, who have been redeemed and bought by Christ’s blood.
Christ gives us the direct access to God that we needed. Christ changes us so that we may approach the Father with reverence, but without fear. Most importantly, Christ enables us to live as the people of God. No Law could ever do that; none of our works could ever achieve this. Only Christ and His blood could do this for us. Because of this, we must stop trusting in things other than Christ, and we must put the entirety of our hope and faith in Christ alone.
Artwork: skeleton image by Adreas Veselius from his “Fabric of the Human Body,” 1543.