Notes on Hebrews
This chapter commences the section of the Epistle which we have labelled THE EFFICACY OF HIS PROPITIATION. The first part of the chapter is devoted to the task of describing the beauty of the earthly tabernacle, with particular emphasis on the great day of atonement. In chapter 8 the writer has been considering the fact that the Lord Jesus is the only One who can lead us into reality. He has described the earthly sanctuary as being a shadow, a nebulous reflection, a mere phantom. Here he describes the sanctuary in some detail and he has a specific reason for doing so. The Jew understood the magnificence of the tabernacle. It was indelibly imprinted on his mind. The striking figure of the high priest on the day of atonement, the beauty of the solid gold lamp-stand, the impressive brazen altar, the majestic coloring of scarlet, blue and purple, all were part of the Jewish way of worship. The writer is therefore saying that if the picture or shadow was so magnificent, what must the reality or substance be like. It must be beyond description.
The golden censer (v.4) speaks of reconciliation. The true holiest of all is now filled with the fragrance of a risen Christ. We are accepted in the beloved One and have become “a sweet odour of Christ to God.” The ark speaks of what God is for man. All that God undertook for man’s blessing is secured in Christ. The ark preserved all that was put into it. In the manna we learn what resources we have for the wilderness. This heavenly food imparts the spiritual strength to meet all the temptations in the path of the child of God. In the rod, symbol of the priesthood of Christ, we see our fitness to enter the holiest. In the tables of the covenant we see the symbol of the will of God that marks the path the pilgrims of Zion are to walk. The mercy seat speaks of Christ the Propitiation and the centre of God’s moral government among His people. The Cherubim suggests that all of God’s attributes were harmonized at the Cross and the mercy of God is thus guaranteed to us. All this we learn in the holiest, the heavenly sanctuary where Christ ministers on our behalf.
There seem to be two distinct Jewish ceremonies in the mind of the writer as he pens this chapter. First, in verse 4 the golden censer was seen beyond the second veil which was not its usual place; it was always in the holy place. The only time it was taken from the golden altar in the holy place to the holiest of all beyond the veil, was on the day of atonement. Hence the first ceremony in view is the great day of atonement. This day was set aside as a preservative for the children of Israel as a nation and by the sacrifices and application of the blood an atonement was made for sin.
At the end of the chapter the writer uses three different Greek words concerning the Lord Jesus, all of which are translated “to appear.” In verse 26 he says that the Lord Jesus has appeared to put away sin. Isaiah 53 describes this act in two ways: “He poured out His soul unto death,” and “He bare the sins of many.” This was beautifully pictured in the two goats, so prominent on the great day of atonement. The first one was killed and its blood poured out at the altar of sacrifice. The second goat bare the sins of the nation into the wilderness, a land not inhabited. Our blessed Lord poured out His soul unto death. He entered the darkness of Golgotha, a land not inhabited, where no man had ever been. There the sin question was settled once and for all. He bare our sins upon the tree and exposed them to the judgment they deserved, a judgment that He Himself endured in our stead.
In verse 24 our Lord Jesus is seen appearing in the presence of God for us. This was impressively pictured as the high priest, bearing the blood of the slain goat, disappears into the holiest of all to appear on behalf of the people. While imperfection stamped the ritual of Israel, finality stamps the fulfilment in the work of Christ. This finality is seen in the word “eternal” in our chapter: He was offered through the eternal Spirit (v. 14), which offering purchased eternal redemption (v. 12) and leads to an eternal inheritance (v.15). As noted above, the censer was taken from beside the golden altar in the holy place, into the holiest of all. The fragrance eminating from the censer filled the holiest of all. So the Lord Jesus, as He appears for us, is Himself in all the value of His work the Propitiation and is therefore filling the presence of God with the fragrance of His intercession on our behalf.
In verse 28 the writer says that the Lord Jesus shall appear the second time. As all Israel waited with bated breath for the appearance of their high priest as he emerged from the tabernacle, so the Church of the living God waits for the coming of the Saviour. The necessity of the sin-offering is gone but He will appear to complete the work He has begun, the work of our salvation.
The second great ceremony in the mind of the writer is suggested by the phrase, “the ashes of an heifer” (v.13). This strange ritual is described in Numbers 19. If an Israelite physically associated himself with death, he was considered, under Jewish law, to be unclean. A red heifer was slain outside the camp and its blood sprinkled before the tabernacle. The body of the heifer was then burned and the ashes were laid up in a clean place outside the camp. They were thus near and available to the unclean. The ashes were then mingled with running water and applied to the defiled individual. The red heifer was slain once. It is the only sacrifice of the Jewish economy that was not repeated. The ashes speak of acceptable sacrifice and its abiding efficacy. It was unmixed in color, unblemished in person and unbroken in yoke. This beautiful picture sets forth our Lord Jesus Christ in the dignity of His consecration, red; in the beauty of His character, no spot or blemish; in the perfection of His walk, no yoke. He needed no compulsion to do the Father’s will. In the heifer we see what our Lord was internally and in what was consumed with it we see what He was externally: cedar, stately in His majesty; hyssop, lowly in His humanity; scarlet, beautiful in His character. All were reduced to ashes and preserved for the defiled. The application of the ashes and water to the defiled individual would therefore suggest the cleansing power of the Word of God in the believer’s life. This power, of course, finds its source in that one acceptable sacrifice of Christ. If the day of atonement had to do with the sins of the nation, the ashes of the heifer had to do with the sins of the individual. The first dealt with the guilt of sin, the second with the defilement of sin.
In contrast to these impressive and important ceremonies is the perfect offering of Christ (v. 14). Wherein was the Sacrifice of Christ superior? First, the Jewish ceremonies cleansed from ceremonial uncleanness only. An Israelite may keep all sections of the law outwardly and may appear fit to fellowship with God, yet have a heart that is filled with deceit. The Sacrifice of Christ, on the other hand, is described as “purging the conscience” (v. 14), cleansing the life through and through. Second, the Jewish ceremonies required repetition. The day of atonement, for example, was held annually. In describing the One Sacrifice of the Lord Jesus, we read that it brought eternal redemption. It required no repetition. Man was eternally freed from the bondage of sin. Third, the Jewish ceremonies provided no future. Each pointed only toward a repetition of the same. Not so with the death of Christ. His Sacrifice has provided an eternal inheritance. The Testator has died and all the benefits of the testament belong to the recipients.
The writer now answers two imaginary questions: (1) The death of Christ is certainly effective against the sins committed under the new covenant, but what about the sins committed under the old covenant? In answering this question the writer has a tremendous thought. He says that the death of Christ in its value was retroactive (v.15). Its effectiveness goes back in time to deal with the sins of the saints which were committed before the Cross.
(2) Why should the new covenant have to involve the death of the Testator? Was there no other way for the new covenant to be established? He answers this question in two ways. The first reason is really a play on words. We have noticed that the word for covenant is Diatheke. In the secular use of the word it was used to describe a Will. It is on this secular use of the word that the writer builds his first answer. In order for a Will (Diatheke) to be effective there must first be the death of the testator. Used in the Christian sense, if the covenant (Diatheke) is to be effective the Author of the covenant must die. The new covenant must involve the death of the Testator.
The second reason goes back to a divine principle laid down in Leviticus 17:11, “The life of the flesh is in the blood… and it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul.” Sin involved death (Rom. 5:12, 6:23), the remission of sin must therefore involve the death of the Redeemer (v.22). To redeem from death and lead those who were in bondage to it and all its claims, into all the benefits of the new covenant, meant that a life must be given. That life must be so precious that it would be of more value than the lives of all mankind. Moreover it must be a sinless life in order to settle the question of sin (John 8:3-11). The Lord Jesus alone could meet these demands. As the uncreated and Eternal Son His life was more valuable than all creatures combined, and as the sinless Godman He was able to settle the question of sin, once and for all (v.26).
At the end of the chapter we are shown how the death of Christ has opened the way into Heaven itself. He has already entered and by virtue of His Blood (His life given in atonement) He appears for us before the throne of God. Apart from Him and His atoning death man must face death and judgment and a hopeless future (v.27).