The discussion of contrast between the broken, first covenant and the better covenant which we found last week in 8:7-13, was, in a way, a parenthesis in the author’s discussion of his main point, the point with which chapter 8 began. That point was the superiority of Christ’s priestly work to that of the Levitical priests. That is important, of course, as we saw, because if these Jewish Christians are seriously considering contenting themselves with the Levitical priesthood and its ceremonies and either giving up on Jesus altogether or relegating him to some subordinate role, it can only be because they have a fatally mistaken view of what it takes to save a sinner. From beginning to end in Hebrews we are talking about how sinners get saved and go to heaven. There isn’t another book in the Bible so fixated on that single question.
As chapter 9 begins, the preacher returns to his main point. He is demonstrating the ineffectuality of the Levitical institutions to deal with sin and, in comparison, the work that Christ did that saves to the uttermost.
v.1 Returning to the argument begun at 8:1-5 – where the earthly sanctuary is compared with the heavenly sanctuary – the preacher begins to describe the earthly sanctuary. Interestingly, he describes the tabernacle, not the temple, probably because of his readers’ fascination with the wilderness period of Israel’s history. That is the same reason why our preacher brought up the failed covenant of God with Israel in chapter 8. It failed for want of faith on the part of Israel. It was the gospel but they didn’t believe it. And he fears that the same thing may be happening again in some of these hearts. The solution is to renew their faith in Christ, not to make the same mistake their forefather’s made and turn the gospel into a theory of salvation by ritual performance.
v.4 This is a notorious problem. The altar of incense, according to Exodus 30:6 and Leviticus 16:12, 18, appears to have been located in the Holy Place not the Most Holy Place. But the wording here is like that in 1 Kings 6:22 and may have less to do with location than with the ritual association of those two pieces of furniture.
v.6 In vv. 6-10 the ritual of the Day of Atonement is described, but in the present tense, contra the NIV. The NIV treats these present tense verbs as historical presents, adding nothing but vividness to the description. That may be correct, but it is also true to say that Hebrews was written, almost certainly, before the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and this ritual continued to be observed in that time. It is important to remember, that according to the testimony of Acts, Jewish Christians were, and properly so, still, even at this time, participating in the temple worship in Jerusalem. Paul did at the end of his third missionary journey and he did so to show his solidarity with other Christians who were participating in Jewish ritual worship. There was nothing wrong with that worship. There was nothing wrong with a Jewish Christian participating in it. Indeed, only Jewish Christians could participate in it with true understanding and effect. The problem was not with the worship per se as God had ordered it in the Law of Moses, but with the corrupt theology that had led the Jews to look to the ceremonies and the rituals instead of to Christ whom they represented.
v.8 The fact that the divinely appointed order of worship so severely restricted access to the Most Holy Place was an enacted lesson that the true, decisive ransom, of which the Levitical sacrifices were but a figure, had not yet been paid and that those sacrifices, in themselves, could not bring the worshipper to God. Remember, the sole question under discussion is what sacrifice is the basis of salvation: the Levitical sacrifice or the sacrifice of Christ. You should not take this statement to mean that believers in the ancient epoch did not have direct access to God or full forgiveness of their sins, a notion the entire Scripture rises to protest. Paul makes his great argument for justification by faith the full forgiveness that Abraham and David received and the Psalms are nothing if they are not the experience of men who drew near to God. But, they received their forgiveness and drew near to God by virtue of Christ’s work, in anticipation, just as we do by virtue of Christ’s work in retrospect. In any case, this author is going to say at great length in chapter 11 that generations of the faithful before the incarnation, drew near to God by faith, just as we must today. Lesson of the sacrificial ritual, which was a description beforehand of Christ’s atonement, and he is speaking of the sacrifices in terms of their power to take away sin because he is talking about the sacrifices only under his readers view of them, as a way of salvation, as a ground basis for forgiveness, by themselves and separated from Christ.
v.11 The NIV reads “the good things that are already here.” It is hard to believe that that is what the author wrote. Even commentators that favor the reading wonder aloud if it is correct. Other early and important witnesses have “the good things that are coming,” as in 10:1. The word “came” in 9:11 is spelled very similarly to the participle translated “that have come” or “are already here” and it is widely supposed that a scribe repeated the spelling accidentally when copying v. 11. The entire perspective of Hebrews is futuristic. It would be hard to believe that here and only here he said “already here” when the whole drift of his thought is to keep his readers’ focus on what they will obtain at the end only if they continue in faith.
v.12 Though Jesus died on a cross outside the walls of the Jerusalem, his sacrifice is represented as having been offered directly to God in heaven.
v.14 Like the Apostle Paul, this author is careful to indicate that all three persons of the Triune God were at work in securing the salvation of the people of God.
v.15 Here again, mediator is used in Hebrews as a synonym for guarantor, as the context here again confirms. It is the promised eternal inheritance, that no one way yet received, that we are talking about.
Now, here again, people often think that the author is introducing a distinction between what we call the OT and what we call the NT. That is, he is saying that Christ died so that the sins of those who lived before the incarnation could be forgiven. His paying the ransom set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant, that is during the time of the Mosaic epoch, because there wasn’t full forgiveness in that epoch?
But that cannot be right for a number of reasons. First, as we said, this author does not view the first covenant as an objective religious situation, as if he were describing the particular religious principles under which God’s people lived in the epoch before Christ’s appearance in the world. He has already said that the message preached to those people in Moses’ day was simply the gospel. Rather, he thinks of the first covenant in terms of the unbelief of the people and their broken relationship with God. That wasn’t true of everyone, of course. He will tell us in chapter 11 that there were many who believed and were saved. Just as there are many who break the covenant and are lost in our day. Second, “those who are called” of whom he is speaking in 9:15 cannot be restricted to saints who lived in the ancient epoch. He has just in v. 14 spoken of the effect of Christ’s death on us. Presumably these second generation Jewish Christians are included in the called. Everywhere else in Hebrews this author lumps all of God’s people together as one. And the eternal inheritance that he talks about here, is the same inheritance he says elsewhere, repeatedly, that all believers, from Abel onward, will receive in Christ, but only at the end of history. So, the effect of Christ’s death that he is describing here in v. 15, is the effect that it has on all those who trust in Jesus. Third, the “For this reason” with which v. 15 begins and which connects it to the thought of v. 14, proves that Christ’s death is the guarantee of eternal life for these people to whom he is writing.
We must read v. 15, with the entire chapter, as a statement of the significance of Christ’s death for the elect as a whole. Christ, by his death, guarantees the full realization of the promises of eternal life, which promises will be fulfilled in their entirety when he returns to earth, as we read at the end of the chapter in v. 28.
So, what then are “the sins committed under the first covenant”? Well, they are not all sins committed before the incarnation, they are the sins that Israel committed when she turned away from God. They are the sins that have been mentioned already in Hebrews, the great sins from which all other sins come: the sins of unbelief and disobedience. Those are the same sins that threaten all human life and threaten these readers. They are the generic root of all sin and the basic problem of men and women. And those are the sins that Christ has taken away by his death for those who trust in him. Our own Dr. Wallis makes this comment on 9:15:
“Hebrews 9:15 refers to the ‘first covenant’ clearly indicating that this
manner of referring to the ‘old covenant’ stems from the exegesis of
Jeremiah’s prophecy given in chapter 8. Hebrews 9:15 makes clear the
connotation of ‘old covenant’ in the writer’s mind. It points to that sinful
condition from which a man must be delivered by the sacrifice of a
better covenant and God’s sovereign calling. It is a remarkable parallel
to John 3:16 in its comprehensive, programmatic scope.”
I think that is exactly right. In the context the author is not talking about a good covenant being replaced by a better one. He’s talking about a false way of salvation in contrast to a true one. He’s talking about people who never were saved and people who are saved, in whatever era of history they lived. The first covenant is that situation, illustrated in Israel’s history, that prevails when men and women are overcome with unbelief and disobedience and fail to obtain eternal life. The new covenant is real salvation, founded on the sacrifice of Christ, received by faith, but fulfilled and accomplished in its fullness only when Christ comes again.
Now, what we have in these verses we read, is reminiscent of the arguments of the Old Testament prophets. They too “ran down” as we might say the rituals of the OT law whenever they found the people tempted to trust in the rituals themselves instead of in God.
Take, for example, a passage we read this morning in connection with the Lord’s Supper, Amos 5:25. In a passage in which the prophet is excoriating God’s people for their lack of true faith in God, and shortly after he quoted God himself as saying to Israel, “I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them,” we read this:
“Did you bring me sacrifices and offerings forty years in the desert, O house of Israel?”
It is a rhetorical question and clearly is expected to be answered in the negative. Israel did not bring the Lord sacrifices and offerings during the forty years in the desert. The sacrificial system of the Mosaic law was, as it were, pre-designed for Israel’s life when she would have access to the normal means of food production and animal husbandry. In the days of manna there could not have been the constant sacrifice of animals and grain that the sacrificial regulations envisaged. There were some sacrifices offered, we know, especially at the inauguration of the tabernacle worship, but it did not begin in earnest until after the conquest of Canaan. So, the author is reminding the people that they didn’t offer sacrifices during those forty years in the wilderness. His point is simply that it is not sacrifices that make God’s people right with him. The rituals are not the essential ingredient of their salvation. Israel’s fatal error in Amos’ day was precisely the same error the readers of Hebrews were contemplating, namely proceeding as if the sacrificial ritual was the sine qua non, the essential foundation of their peace with God. In Amos’ day the people were careful to observe the rituals, but their lives demonstrated their lack of living faith in God or love for him. So, Amos takes on the rituals directly and reminds them that they aren’t the key to peace with God; never were, never will be.
Or, take Jeremiah’s famous “Temple Sermon” in Jer. 7. Once again, the prophet is preaching to people who have turned the ceremonies of the Mosaic ritual into the basis of salvation. They are not living a life of true faithfulness to God, they do not love him for his grace, lacking such faith and love, they do not serve the Lord by keeping his commandments, but they are sure that all will be well with them because, after all, they have the temple. They are trusting the temple not the Lord himself. And so, through Jeremiah, the Lord sarcastically says to them,
“Go ahead, add your burnt offerings to your other sacrifices and eat the meat yourselves.” [v. 21]
The burnt offerings, you see, were supposed to be entirely consumed on the altar. But the Lord is saying, “I don’t care how you offer sacrifices. Do it any way you please. It matters not to me.” Why, because the essential ingredient in a true sacrifice is living faith in God and heart of loving gratitude for his grace and mercy, and these things Israel does not have. Without that faith the sacrifices are nothing!
There are other such passages in the OT, but perhaps the most famous of them is found in Micah 6. It is once again a passage in which the prophet is inditing Israel for her unbelief and disobedience against the backdrop of Israel’s confidence that she will be saved because she follows the ritual routine required in the Mosaic law. So Micah asks, in the Lord’s name:
“With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil?”
These are rhetorical questions obviously to be answered in the negative. And then Micah goes on.
“He has showed you O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of
you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
Now all of these statements have this in common: they seem to be saying that the sacrificial ritual wasn’t really very important, that it didn’t play a decisive role in salvation. Some schools of OT scholarship in the 20th century went further and argued that these statements, and others like them in the prophets, proved that the prophets weren’t in favor of the temple and wanted to replace the ritual religion of Israel with an ethical religion, an emphasis on morality and good works.
That is really what the designers of the Library of Congress thought. In the library there are reading rooms off the main hall, each dedicated to some particular branch of knowledge: history, art, science, etc. Over the door into each such reading room there is inscribed a text having to do with that field. They conducted a survey to decide what text would be put over the door to the religion reading room and the conclusion was that they should put that text from Micah 6: “He has showed you O man what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
That seemed ideal to the Library of Congress folk. No messy sacrifice, nothing too distinctively Christian, just good solid, universal morality. [Of course to take that text that way wrenches it from its context. Earlier in the chapter God reminds Israel that he had redeemed her from bondage and there is mention made of the “righteous acts of the Lord.” So this is ethics in response to redemption. That is to say, this is the Christian religion, the farthest thing from mere morality.]
But, take the point. The prophets often speak as if the ritual life of Israel counted for very little. And they speak that way precisely because the people have begun placing their confidence in the ritual instead of in the Lord. They run down the ritual only as a way of salvation, which, of course, it was never intended to be. It was to be the sign and seal of God’s great work of redemption, a means to foster faith and trust in the Lord and a way of increasing the people’s joy in the salvation that God had freely given to them. When the people begin counting on ritual acts instead of the Lord, when they absolutize the ritual and replace the Lord’s love and redemption with their own religious works, when ritual is no longer the servant of living faith in God but has become the required works in a works religion, then the prophets are prepared to point out how little ritual can accomplish and what a broken reed it is as the basis for one’s hope of forgiveness from a holy God and eternal life.
Well, what you find in Amos, Micah and Jeremiah is precisely what you find here in Hebrews 9. We had a summary statement already given to us in 7:18: the law, and he means the ritual law, was “weak and useless.” That is a scathing verdict to pronounce on something the Lord himself instituted and commanded. But that is what he says. And he says it, as v. 19 indicates, for precisely the same reason Amos, Micah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah said it: the ceremonies couldn’t make a person right with God, couldn’t take away his sins, couldn’t make him perfect.
It is a fair argument to say, of course, that they were never intended to do that. That this author is criticizing the ceremonies unfairly. This author knows that. He knows what rightful purposes the OT sacraments had, how they were meant to nourish the life of faith, how they were instruments by which God increased his people’s joy in their salvation. But, that is not how he is viewing them or talking about them here, because that is not how his readers are thinking about them or viewing them. They are tempted to think of the ceremonies as salvation itself, rather than a means of God’s grace for those who have living faith in God their redeemer. Anyone must think that way about the OT sacrifices if they refuse to acknowledge Jesus Christ as the Messiah. Without Jesus the sacrifices must point to nothing but themselves.
In chapter 9 (and on into chapter 10), the author takes up his “weak and useless” verdict and develops it. We’ve seen before how often in Hebrews the author mentions a point and then returns to develop it later. Well that is what he has done here.
He sums up his point in vv. 9-10: the sacrifices couldn’t remove sin so as to clear the conscience; why they’re only a matter of food and drink, external regulations and only temporary at that. What are they going to do for you. It almost sounds as if this author wonders what real and important purpose those sacrifices ever served. But, in that, he is just repeating the sort of argument the OT prophets often used.
But, take note: what they are faulted for, those ceremonies, was a failure to take away sin, to redeem sinners, to make them perfect and right with God. And that is a meaningful charge to make concerning the OT sacraments only because that is the way this author’s readers were being tempted to think about these ceremonies. You’ll notice, by the way, that Hebrews makes no mention whatsoever of the Lord’s Supper. The new epoch has its ceremonies too, and, as history proves, the church would be tempted over and over again to substitute its confidence in the Lord himself and in his grace in Christ for a confidence in external ceremonies. That is our great charge against so much of Roman Catholic and Orthodox thinking, though it certainly has been the fatal error of many Protestants as well. What difference does it make, after all, whether one is trusting in the ritual of the Day of Atonement or the ritual of the Lord’s Supper. Hebrews could be preached today. You would only have to substitute the Lord’s Supper for the Day of Atonement ritual and the argument would be the same, the scorn directed to the weakness and uselessness of the Supper to take away sin would be the same. It is the same error, the same failure of living faith, the same improper transference of confidence from Christ himself to those rites and ceremonies which were designed to serve only as an aid to faith in Christ and which otherwise are empty and lifeless and useless forms.
So, understand the author’s purpose, the situation he was facing and you will understand the reason why he seems to run down and cast aspersion on the sacred rites of Israel’s worship. Those rites were fine and wonderful in themselves, as are baptism and the Lord’s Supper today, but when misused, when made the substance of salvation, they are nothing, they are worse than nothing. Do you suppose a bit of bread and a sip of wine are going to make you right with a Holy God. What good can a bit of food and drink do your soul? How can they take away your sin?
No our hope is in Christ himself, who redeemed his people from bondage to sin, to guilt, and to the devil and has, by his death and resurrection, guaranteed that those who trust in him will live forever in the heavenly country.
Once again, as with the first and better covenant, the contrast is not between the religious situation of the OT and that of the NT as two epochs in the history of salvation succeeding one another in time. As the whole context makes clear, it is a contrast between a false faith centered in ceremonies and a true faith centered in Christ. It is a contrast between what does not take away sin and what does, what does not take a man or woman to heaven and what does. That contrast, as the OT prophets demonstrate, was as necessary to define in ancient days as it is today. True faith in Christ is and has always been the only way of salvation. But, it has always had its counterfeits and many of them make use of the very things that were supposed to represent Christ and his atonement to us.
How often this has been the Devil’s way, to make the servants of the truth and of Christ and salvation the very means by which to divert attention away from Christ. Magnificent church buildings, built for Christ’s worship become, in the hearts of people, a substitute for Christ himself. The Christian ministry, intended to proclaim Christ to people, has often become corrupted into a ministry that, while giving people a sense that they are Christians and religious keeps them from true and living faith in Christ. The Christian sacraments, meant to nurture the faith of God’s people in Christ and his salvation become, instead, the object of their faith. Just as Satan often disguises himself as an angel of light, so these holy things can be put to the most unholy use conceivable, to inoculate human beings against true faith and keep them comfortable without salvation.
It is to prevent that tragedy that our author lays bare the pathetic inability of mere ceremonies to make a sinful man or woman right with God. No that takes nothing less than the death of the Son of God.