The Tabernacle – Hebrews 9

Read the Passage: Hebrews 9

Listen to the Redeemed Mind Podcast: Hebrews 9

Structure (9:1–10)

The centerpiece of the sacrificial system was the tabernacle. In fact, over fifty chapters in the Old Testament are given to describing the tabernacle and the ministry that took place therein. Heb. 9:1–10 is a commentary on the significance of the structure and various components of the tabernacle, which were first detailed by Moses in Exod. 25–27. The first covenant, along with its accessories, was obsolete and ready to vanish away (cf. Heb. 8:13); yet, in this passage the author explains how the tabernacle was preparatory and “symbolic for the present time” (Heb. 9:9). Here the author notes that the first part of the tabernacle (i.e., the holy place or the sanctuary) contained the lamp-stand, table, and bread of the presence; while the second part (i.e., the most holy place or the holy of holies) contained the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant, the contents of which he describes in some detail.

In Heb. 9:6–7 the author describes the basic operation of the tabernacle: in short, the first part was where daily service occurred, and the second part was only entered once a year, on the Day of Atonement. In Heb. 9:8 the author notes this structure was used by the Holy Spirit to teach that the sacrificial system did not grant regular access to God—indeed, it was only “symbolic for the present time” (Heb. 9:9a). Moreover, the ceremonial laws lacked the ability to “make him who performed the service perfect in regard to the conscience” (Heb. 9:9b; cf. Heb. 7:19). Note the following tabernacle related symbolism: Jesus is the true tabernacle (cf. John 1:14), Jesus is the true bread of life (cf. John 6:35), Jesus is the true light of the world (cf. John 8:12), Jesus is the true sacrifice (cf. John 1:29), Jesus is the true High Priest (cf. Heb. 3:1), and Jesus is He who cleanses from sin (cf. 1 John 1:7).

Significance (9:11–15)

Having explained the limitations of the earthly tabernacle in Heb. 9:6–10, the author writes about the effectiveness of the heavenly sanctuary in Heb. 9:11–15. The author begins by referring to Jesus’ service as High Priest in “the greater and more perfect tabernacle” (Heb. 9:11). Observe the author had already referred to the earthly sanctuary as being “symbolic” (Heb. 9:9), and had called it a “copy” (Heb. 8:5; cf. 9:23–24) and a “shadow” (Heb. 8:5; cf. Heb. 10:1). The greater tabernacle where Christ mediates, then, is described as “true” (Heb. 8:2; 9:23–24) and being “in the heavens” (Heb. 9:23; cf. Heb. 8:5). This is where Jesus “entered the Most Holy Place once for all” (Heb. 9:12). Next, the author writes that whereas earthly ceremonies could only purify the flesh, Christ offered His own blood for all, to “cleanse your conscience from dead works [and] to serve the living God” (Heb. 9:14).

Sacrifice (9:16–28)

In Heb. 9:14–15 the author describes how Jesus became Mediator of the new covenant—that is, with His own self-sacrifice. In Heb. 9:16–17 the author details why Christ had to die. Here the author appeals to the idea of a last will and testament, as he notes that the promises in a will only become effective when the one who made the will passes away. In a similar manner, for God’s promises of redemption to be realized, it required the death of Christ. Next, in Heb. 9:18–22, the author appeals to certain events recorded in Exod. 24:4–8 when the old covenant was inaugurated. Here the author teaches that just as with the new covenant, so the blessings of the old covenant required blood to be effective. Moreover, this blood was from “calves and goats” (Heb. 9:19), which were substitutes for the people. Thus, blood within the old covenant sacrificial system shadowed aspects of the new covenant.

In Heb. 9:23–24 the author again appeals to the superiority of Jesus’ sacrifice, as he twice refers to the elements of the earthly tabernacle as being merely copies of the true reality in heaven (cf. Heb. 9:23, 24). In Heb. 9:25–28 the author focuses on the sufficiency of Christ’s self-sacrifice, as he notes two times that Jesus’ sacrifice is not “often” (Heb. 9:25–26) and mentions three times that Christ’s atonement was made “once” (Heb. 9:26–28). This contrast between the old covenant priests’ regular sacrifices, and Jesus’ once-and-for-all sacrifice highlights the superiority of Christ’s atonement. Another major difference between the old and new covenants is that whereas in the old covenant the people eagerly waited for the Day of Atonement, so their sins could be covered for another year; in the new covenant believers eagerly wait for the second coming of Jesus and glorification.

Application Questions:

  1. While the author teaches that the tabernacle was symbolic, do you believe those living under the sacrificial system understood this fact?
  2. Why didn’t God communicate the gospel clearly and directly to His people in the Old Testament—that is, without the symbolism of the tabernacle?
  3. What does it mean to be “perfect in regard to conscience” (Heb. 9:9) or to “cleanse your conscience” (Heb. 9:14)?
  4. How much of the symbolism within the sacrificial system would the Jews have needed to understand in order to be saved?
  5. How ought the teaching that Jesus “was offered once to bear the sins of many” (Heb. 9:28) affect our view of the Lord’s Supper?