The book of Hebrews tells us that Jesus Christ is the mediator of a better covenant. He has a better priesthood and a better ministry. Chapter 9 then describes in more detail the priestly ministry of our Savior.
The tabernacle (verses 1-5)
First, the old covenant ritual is described: “The first covenant had regulations for worship and also an earthly sanctuary.” The author does not write about the covenants made with Noah or Abraham, even though they came first. Rather, by “first” he means the covenant made at Sinai, because it is the covenant replaced by Jesus’ new covenant. The Sinai covenant had laws about how people could approach God.
“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” (see Exodus 25:23-40). The author describes the tabernacle rather than the temple, perhaps because the biblical details were given for a tabernacle, and that is what would be familiar to the readers.
“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” (see Exodus 25:10-22; 30:1-6). “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” (for details see Exodus 16:33-34; 25:18; Numbers 17:10; Deuteronomy 10:1-5).
What the rituals could not do (verses 6-10)
“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.” The high priest entered the Most Holy Place only on the Day of Atonement. Before he entered, he sacrificed a bull for his own sins, and later, a goat for the people (Leviticus 16:1-17).
What is the spiritual significance of this symbolism? “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.” In the tabernacle symbolism, God was near but not accessible. The symbolism hinted that there was a way to approach God, but almost no one could do it.
“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.” Despite the sacrifices, the people were unable to go to God, unable to enter his presence. The rituals could not bring about the reality that they symbolized.
“They are only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings — external regulations applying until the time of the new order.” Rituals are external actions, and they cannot change the heart. They do not cleanse the conscience. They were valid only until Christ came. Our author mentions the Levitical rituals, but we can follow the logic to see more. External rituals like circumcision are no longer required. Worship details no longer apply. The entire covenant is obsolete.
Christ’s work in heaven (verses 11-15)
Now, in contrast to the ritual works of the old covenant, we are told about the superior ministry of Christ: “But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation.” The better blessings have already begun, the author reminds us. We already have forgiveness and direct access to God, because Christ went through the heavenly holy place.
Jesus Christ entered the reality, not the imitation, and he did it by a better sacrifice: “He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.” By dying for us, the Son of God was able to redeem us once for all. It was a perfect, sinless sacrifice, presented in the heavenly holy place, fully effective, never needing to be done again. This was a sharp contrast with the Levitical rituals, which were repeated continually yet never bringing the people closer to God.
“The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean” (see Numbers 19:1-22). The heifer ritual, like the others, had obscure details that had nothing to do with a person’s conscience. Christ is much better than a heifer, and we should expect that his sacrifice achieves a much better kind of cleansing. “How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!”
He offered a perfect sacrifice, willingly, and this cleanses us on the inside and enables us to worship God. We can do what the high priest could only symbolize: we can approach God with total confidence. We have been washed and purified by the blood of Christ — all sins are removed. If a burned-up heifer could ritually cleanse an Israelite, we can be sure that the sacrifice of Jesus is more than enough for us.
Since Christ brings us complete forgiveness, he “is the mediator of a new covenant.” He gives us a relationship with God on a completely new basis — not the old covenant, but the new. Here is the result: “those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance.”
This was achieved, the author reminds us, because “he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.” Under the first covenant, many external regulations defined sin. Christ set us free from that. He forgives any kind of sin, but he sets us free from the rituals that were important under the old covenant.
Covenant enacted by blood (verses 16-25)
This new covenant could come about only through a better sacrifice — something far superior to animals. The author begins by using an illustration from the legal customs of the day. He uses the example of a will, because the Greek word for covenant could also mean a will. It was a contract that became valid only when someone died. “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.”
The Sinai covenant also involved death — the death of animals. “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’” (quoting Exodus 24:5-8).
“The law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” The Law of Moses required blood in its rituals of cleansing (9:21-22), but drops of blood do not make anything physically clean. What the Israelites needed was a spiritual cleansing — an elimination of spiritual defilement, imperfection, sin, guilt and anything that kept them away from God’s purpose for them. They needed forgiveness.
Animal blood cannot change spiritual realities, and animal sacrifices cannot eliminate sin (10:4), but the old covenant nevertheless prescribed animal sacrifices for forgiveness. Just as the tabernacle pictured a heavenly reality, these animal sacrifices pictured a future death that would be effective in removing sin.
The earthly tabernacle had to be ritually purified by animal sacrifices, but the heavenly holy place required a better sacrifice (9:23). The spiritual distance between God and humans required a spiritual sacrifice — someone with a perfect conscience, totally without sin.
“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.” Jesus was not dealing with a physical, symbolic copy. He was not working with external rituals. Rather, he was dealing with the real spiritual problem, and he did his work in heaven. It was a better place, and a better sacrifice.
Humans are both matter and spirit; Christ’s work was both physical and spiritual. He became fully human, mortal and physical, in order to redeem humans. But his redemption had to be on the spiritual level as well: a conscience untainted by sin, a life willingly offered on behalf of others, a person worthy of entering heaven itself to intercede for humans. He offered himself, both body and spirit.
Jesus is now in heaven to help us (9:24). He is the God-man who eliminates the distance between God and humans. His work is fully effective — for all time. “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.” Once was enough, unlike the work of the Levitical priests, who had to repeat the same rituals over and over. The fact that the rituals had to be repeated showed that their work was not effective. True cleansing was possible only through a better sacrifice, a better priest, a better covenant.
The decisive sacrifice (verses 26-28)
Jesus did not go to heaven to perform endless rituals. He is not copying the old covenant, because the old covenant had only temporary substitutes. Jesus does not have to suffer forever to rescue us from sin. He gave himself once, and that was enough.
“He has appeared once for all.” When? “At the end of the ages.” Why? “To do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.” Even in the first century, believers were living in the “end of the ages” — “in these last days” (1:2). The old era had ended; a new age had begun with Jesus Christ. The spiritual world was radically different. The sacrifice of all time had been given.
But the story is not yet done. Just as ordinary humans appear once, and then will appear again in the judgment, so also with Christ. “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 people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.”
Each person dies for his or her own sins, but Jesus died for others. Each person will face the judgment for his or her sins, but Jesus will be the judge. His death took away their sins, and when he appears again, he will not be bringing their sins against them. Rather, he will be bringing eternal salvation for all who trust in him.