Under the old covenant there were regulations about purification rites and thus an external removal of any kind of pollution was provided. But (and that is a big BUT) the sacrifices of animals and similar sacrifices could never deal with the real problem (sin!) in a permanent way.
Under the new covenant, however, Jesus our great high priest, has offered the perfect sacrifice and thus cleanses the conscience of the worshipper of God Most High.
The Aaronic priests served in an earthly sanctuary where there is a barrier between God and His people (represented by the curtain in the tabernacle). This tent was only a shadow or copy of the true things in heaven. Jesus, in contrast, serves in the true tabernacle, not made by hand, and his once for all sacrifice established a way to God.
Because of this, we now can draw near to God with confidence in the blood of Jesus Christ. Because of this let us not neglect to meet together. Because of this let us hold fast to our confession, “we shall have firm assurance of those eternal realities which are invisible” (Bruce, xxi).
Resuming the argument from ch.8 – the superiority of the new covenant over the old – the author now proceeds with a distinction of the earthly and the heavenly sancturay. The first covenant is elaborated here as having two aspects. The first aspect is the regulations for worship; and the second, the earthly place for holiness (i.e., the tent or tabernacle). In reverse order the author will elucidate on those (vv.2-5 the earthly place for holiness; and vv. 6-10 the regulations for worship; cf. Lane, 217).
The tent which was prepared was the tabernacle of the wilderness period. Since the author is contrasting the new covenant with the old covenant (received in the wilderness at Sinai) it makes perfect sense why he is not contrasting the heavenly sanctuary with the temple, but rather chooses the contrast to the tabernacle (Lane, 218; O’Brien, 307).
The first section is the (I) Holy Place in which (1) the lampstand and (2) the table and the bread of the Presence were placed. The second section corresponds to the (II) Most Holy Place (also called Holy of Holies) with the (1) golden altar of incense and (2) the Ark of the Covenant in which (a) the manna, (b) Aaron’s staff, and (c) the tablets of the covenant were. This Ark of the Covenant was underneath the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. The placing of the golden altar of incense into the Most Holy Place is problematic. It was placed in the Holy Place, but not in the Holy of Holies (Ex. 30:6 [here it is ambiguous as to where the altar was placed]; 40:26). Bruce comments that there was a special connection between the altar of incense and the mercy seat (201-202; cf. Ex. 30:10; Lev. 16:12ff), but our author does not give a more detailed discussion of this “problem”, since he is interested not in the furniture per se.
[However, it is interesting to observe that the passages of Rev. 8:3 and 9:13 indicate a golden altar where incense is offered to be “before the throne/God.” If this has any relevancy to the text in Hebrews is less likely, since the author talks about the earthly sanctuary at this point.]
The author of this epistle proceeds to the second aspect (i.e., the regulations for worship in vv. 6-10) of this earthly tent. The priests went into the Holy Place regularly to perform their sacerdotal duties (cf. e.g. Ex. 27; 30). But into the Holy of Holies the high priest only went once a year – on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16). And on this occasion he would take blood as an offering and sprinkle it on the mercy seat. Three points are emphasized by the author (Bruce, 208): (1) though once a year the high priest – and only him – could enter the throne room of God, in general this approach was barred for the people of Israel; (2) if the high priest went in, he went in by sacrificial safeguard of the blood; and (3) this blood was not efficacious, since it had to be repeated every year (cf. 10:1-3)!
Notice the contrast between the constant activities of the priests (regardless of the place of worship) and the “once for all” aspect of Christ’s sacrifice (7:27; 9:12, 26; 10:10). “The greatest festival of the Jewish year paradoxically shows most clearly the limitations of the old dispensation and its high priesthood” (Ellingworth, 434).
Further, instead of using the common language in the LXX to describe the activity of the high priest (usually “sprinkle” [Gr. rhainō] in some shape or form), the author of Hebrews employs the word “offer” (prospherō) which is used to refer to Christ’s death in 9:14, 25, 28; 10:12. Thus the author wants his readers “to recognize the typological parallel between the high point of the atonement ritual under the old covenant and the self-offering of Christ on the cross” (Lane 2:223).
What does the author refer to in speaking of the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing? The term holy places signifies the Holy of Holies (Bruce, 209) as is also clear from the context (vv. 12, 24, 25). The way into the Holy of Holies – into the presence of God Himself – is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing. Peterson observes that the first section normally “describes the outer tent of Israel’s earthly sanctuary. However, here the expression is apparently used to refer to the whole system of sacrifice and priestly ministry associated with the tabernacle and the temple” (in loc.). Ellingworth states the same in writing “it is probably best to give [“the first ten”; Gr.: hē prōtē skēnē] a temporal (not, as in vv. 2, 6, a spatial) sense, and to refer it to the OT tabernacle as a whole (not, as exceptionally in v. 2, to its outer part only)” (438).
Thus the meaning of this verse would be that the old covenant and its rituals had to be abolished in order that access would have been available to the throne of God. Permanent access to God’s presence was only granted after Christ “came to accomplish his sacrificial ministry” (Bruce, 209). And hence the old covenantal system was only a symbol for the reality of the present time – the Messianic age.
In connection with what the author just stated these sacrifices, gifts, and other rites cannot perfect the conscience of the worshipper (cf. 7:18-19), since their intent was to point to Christ in the first place.
The rituals performed in the OT however only dealt with external affairs, with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body. But by no means were these old regulations nonsense, superfluous, or empty (Hughes, 324). No, they were as already stated a pointer to something – to someone! – else. But since now the substance of the shadow has come – they become obsolete. The time of reformation is to be seen of the new covenant inaugurated by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (already treated in ch.8; cf. Hughes, 325).
So what about that time of reformation? This, the author will now explain in the following section – see the upcoming post.
Bruce, F. F. The Epistle to the Hebrews. New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990.
Ellingworth, P. The Epistle to the Hebrews : A Commentary on the Greek Text. Grand Rapids; Carlisle England: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 1993.
Hughes, Philip Edgcumbe. A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews. Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 1977.
Lane, William L. Hebrews. 9-13. Word Biblical Commentary, v. 47B. Dallas, Tex: Word Books, 1991.
O’Brien, Peter T. The Letter to the Hebrews. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; 2010.
Peterson, David. “Hebrews.” New Bible Commentary : 21st Century Edition, 4th ed. Ed. D.A. Carson, et al. Leicester, England; Downers Grove, USA: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994.