Better Priest, Better Worship
When we sin, our conscience is defiled, and that typically makes us want to hide from God rather than drawing near to him in worship. But in this passage we see that Jesus both makes a way for us to enter God’s presence and cleanses our conscience so that we are no longer afraid to do so.
Hebrews 9-13 (WBC), William Lane
Hebrews: Evangelical Biblical Theology Commentary, Thomas Schreiner
Hebrews, John Owen
Whether time travel is possible is one of those questions that appeals to sci-fi novelists, moviemakers, philosophers, physicists, and well, pretty much everyone. “If you could go back in time to any period of history, which would you choose?” is a kind of fun, icebreaker, get-to-know-you type question. No doubt all of us have had times in our lives where we wished time travel was possible, so that we could go back and redo a terrible mistake we made. Off the top of your head, you can probably think of at least one thing you did in the past that you still cringe to think about. Sometimes those things are just embarrassing, like one I have in my mind right now, but other times those things are sinful, things that fell short of what God requires of us, and when we have done those things, as we all have, they leave a mark on our conscience that typically makes us want to hide from God, rather than drawing near to him in worship. How can the mark be removed? Or, in the words of our passage today, how can it be purified?
I recently listened to a podcast episode on the podcast “Room for Nuance” on parenting, featuring a pastor in New York City named Ed Moore. I mention it in part just because I hope you’ll listen to it; it is a fantastic resource on parenting. In the course of the podcast Moore mentioned remembering the many ways he’d sinned as a father, and he said when he remembers those, he often wishes he had a time machine. But then he said, “God hasn’t given us a time machine. He’s given us the gospel.” This morning we’re getting back into the book of Hebrews after a short break over the last 2 months, and in this passage we are going to see that God doesn’t give us a time machine for our defiled consciences. But we’re also going to see the gospel, the good news, of Christianity, that Jesus Christ has traveled through time in a sense, though not in the sense of sci-fi movies. He has come into the present age from the eternal age, bringing with him a true purification of our consciences, and a true way into the presence of God, that we might worship him truly, and that’s something none of the priests who came before Christ could ever do. Christ is the priest who enables us to worship God beyond what any former priest could. To show us that, our author first shows us the way of worship through the former priests, and then the way of worship through Christ, and so we will look first at the way of the former priests, then at the way of Christ.
The way of the former priests
Our passage begins by talking about the first covenant, and that’s a reference to what we commonly call the Mosaic covenant, because it was the covenant God delivered to Moses and which Moses then conveyed to the people. Elsewhere it is called the Old Covenant, in contrast with the New Covenant, which was promised before the coming of Christ and inaugurated with the death of Christ such that now it is the covenant under which we live. The two covenants have important similarities and differences. On the similar side, they both have a method and a location of worship, but the difference is in the particular method and location of each covenant. So verse 1 of our passage begins by saying that even the first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly place of holiness—method and location, and then our author goes into the details to tell us about that method and location, beginning first with a description of the location before moving to the method. Collectively, we could call these the way of worship mediated by the former priests.
First, then, the location: In short, the location was a tent, as verse 2 calls it, also called the tabernacle in scripture, or as we saw in our study of Leviticus to begin this year, the “tent of meeting”, as in, the tent where God met with his people. Our author goes on to describe how that tent was divided into two sections by a curtain, the first section of which was called the holy place, the second of which was called the most holy place, or the holy of holies more literally. Sometimes we use the phrase “the best of the best”, well this place was the “holiest of the holy”. He gives a brief description of the furnishings in each section, but then tells us in verse 5 that to get into the details of those is not really his aim. If there is one piece of furniture to emphasize, it is the ark of the covenant. The presence of the ark is what made the most holy place the holiest of the holy. An ark was basically a chest, and the text there tells us what was in it, but on top of it was a lid called the mercy seat, and on top of that were two cherubim, which were a type of angel, and they extended their wings to meet in the middle. That mercy seat with the cherubim on it is where God said he would meet with his people (Ex 25:22). It represented a throne on which the LORD sat as king. God is omnipresent, meaning he is entirely present everywhere at all times. So you cannot think of the holiest of the holy as the place where God exclusively dwells. And yet, it was a place where he made his presence especially known. It was the place he was most revealed, and therefore, the place where he could be most intimately known. To be in there was the apex of communion with God, knowledge of the divine, spiritual enlightenment, possible under the first covenant. It was to be in his presence, in which scripture tells us there is fullness of joy, and pleasures forevermore (Psalm 16:11).
Sounds great, right? There is something attractive even about the idea that there is a location on earth that we can see with our eyes, to which we can go and know that God himself will meet with us there. As history progressed, the tabernacle went from being a mobile tent to a temple in Jerusalem, and the author of this letter was writing to people who were tempted to return to that temple, and again, you can get that, right? If God feels distant to you, if you want a real spiritual experience with God, wouldn’t it be good marketing for someone to come to you and say, “Just show up at this address on this day, and God will be there”? But as our author moves from the location of Old Covenant worship to the method in verses 6-10, we are going to see that there were significant deficiencies in this method. So what was the method?
With regard to the first section, the priests went regularly into it, performing their ritual duties. These included lighting the lampstand, burning incense, arranging bread on the table which was then to serve as their food, and even sprinkling blood from the sin offerings for the unintentional sins of the high priest or of the entire congregation, but in the second, the holiest of the holy, that place of utmost communion with God, into that section only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people. So under the first covenant we had this glorious place of worship on earth, a tent in which was not only a holy place, but the holiest of holies, the place where people could go to meet with God, to enjoy the richest possible communion with him on earth, to be in his presence, to reach the heights of spiritual experience, to have fullness of joy and pleasures at his right hand forevermore, and who got to do it?! One guy. Exodus tells us 600,000 men came out of Egypt at the Exodus, plus women and children. So let’s just say there were a million Israelites in the wilderness, a conservative estimate. And do you know what percentage of them got to go into the holiest of the holy? .0001%. That’s about the percentage of Americans in the NBA. It’s literally one in a million. And how often did that guy get to enter the holiest of the holy? One day per year. One day out of 365. And when he went in, was he able to just go in and enjoy the presence of God? No; he had to take blood with him, for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people.
Our author is referring here to a ritual outlined in a chapter of Leviticus that we did not reach in our study of that book earlier this year, chapter 16, the day of atonement, known to us today as Yom Kippur, the Hebrew words for day of atonement. On the day of atonement once per year the high priest would perform an elaborate ritual summarized in this chapter, which included him not only sprinkling blood before the curtain and smearing it on the corners of the altar of incense, as in the ordinary sin offering at which we did look in our study of Leviticus, but he would also on that day go beyond the curtain and also sprinkle the blood on the mercy seat and in front of it, to make atonement for himself, his house, all the assembly of Israel, and the holiest of holies itself (Lev 16:14-17).
And what was God’s intention in all that? You ever wonder that as you read through chapters like Leviticus 16? Well, praise God, our author tells us in verse 8. There he tells us what the Holy Spirit indicates by that ritual, and before I get into it, just notice again something we saw earlier in Hebrews if you were with us then and can remember back that far: When the author of Hebrews looks at the scriptures of the Old Testament, he does so as though the Holy Spirit is still speaking those very words in his day. So in chapter 3, he said, “as the Holy Spirit says,” present tense, and then quoted words from the Old Testament, written hundreds of years prior to his day. So here, reflecting on this Old Testament ritual, he tells us what the Spirit is presently indicating by it, back to verse 8: By the fact that into that holiest of the holy only one man enters, and he but once a year, and even then not without blood, the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing, which he then tells us is symbolic for the present age.
In other words, what should you learn from the fact that only one man can enter the holiest of the holy, and he only once per year, and he not without blood? You should learn from it that you can’t enter the holiest of the holy. As the great children’s book The Garden, The Curtain, and The Cross puts it: “It is wonderful to live with God. But because of your sin, you can’t go in.” When our author speaks of the “present age” in verse 8, he’s referring to the age of the first creation, the age into which we were all born. God created the first humans to dwell in his presence, and they did! But when they rejected his loving rule, they were cast out of his presence, and that’s the condition into which you and I were born. What that whole tent arrangement under the first covenant was meant to indicate, then, is that through that first creation, in that age, the way into the presence of God is not yet open. There is no bridge from here to there. There is no subway line, no highway exit, and no bus route to there. There is no eight-fold path, no seven sacraments, no five pillars, and no self-help to get from the present age into the presence of God. So yes, the first covenant had an earthly place of worship, and it might have been tempting for the Hebrews to return to it, but they couldn’t even go in! And yes, if your communion with God is lacking, it may be tempting for you today to return or turn to some place that says God dwells in it, but if it is on earth, you can rest assured that it will not bring you into the presence of God.
And not only did the earthly place of holiness under the first covenant provide no way for the people to enter the presence of God; the gifts and sacrifices offered there didn’t even work! Look at verse 9. After describing the symbolism of the first section of the first tent, he says that according to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices were offered that could not perfect the conscience of the worshiper, but dealt only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation. They worked in a sense, the sense for which God appointed them: They did in fact regulate the body, so that the people could be ceremonially clean in God’s sight, and therefore not incur God’s wrath. In other words, those gifts and sacrifices, the burnt offering, the grain offering, the peace offering, the sin offering, the guilt offering, the whole system, enabled the people of Israel to survive with a holy God dwelling among them in the present age. But what they never did was perfect the conscience of the worshipers.
Your conscience is basically your sense of what is right and wrong. When you sin, then, not only are you ceremonially defiled in God’s sight, not only is the altar for burnt offering, the altar of incense, the holy place, or even the holiest of the holies defiled, your conscience is defiled. You feel guilty or ashamed, and you should. And yet, if you were with us when we went through Leviticus, did you notice that even though we saw sacrifices that cleansed the altar for burnt offering, the altar for incense, the holy place, and even though Leviticus will go on to give much more detail on how people can be cleansed, we never read of anything in Leviticus about how the conscience of the worshiper can be cleansed? Those gifts and sacrifices couldn’t do it, and there is nothing you can do that will really do it either. That doesn’t stop us from trying, of course. Today in the West we even have a whole industry of certain types of therapy that are working in large measure to convince you you shouldn’t have that feeling, the essence of much religion is to give you things to do that will help ease that feeling, we have a plethora of substances to numb that feeling, and we have all kinds of causes you can join or give your money to make you feel better. Such things may soothe the conscience, but none really cleanse it. None perfect it. You can put a shirt on to cover a scar, you can take a pill to ease the pain, but how can the conscience be perfected from the scars sin leaves on it? Not through the first covenant.
And that matters, not only because nobody likes feeling guilty and ashamed, but because as long as you feel guilty and ashamed, your worship of God will always be hindered. Don’t you know that from experience? Isn’t this often why we keep our distance from God? As rapper Shai Linne has put it, “Everybody knows that they’re guilty. Our conscience condemns us, shows us we’re filthy. Truth be told, we really have no answers, for why we fall short of our own moral standards.” And our conscience shows us not only that we are guilty, but that we deserve to be punished for our guilt (cf. Rom 1:32). So what’s that make us want to do? It makes us want to stay away from God, to hide. What did the first humans do after they sinned? “And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man and said to him, ‘Where are you?’ And he said, I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself” (Gen 3:8-10). The first covenant had no solution for that problem. There was a way of worship under the first covenant, mediated by its priests, but not only did it provide no way for us to enter the presence of God; it left us in a position where even if we could truly enter the presence of the living God, we’d hide instead.
So don’t turn to such things. Instead, turn to Christ, because he is the priest who enables us to worship God beyond what any of the former priests ever could. He gives us a way into the presence of God, and he cleanses our conscience so that we won’t be afraid to take it. Let’s look next, then, at the way of Christ.
The way of Christ
Ok, so no way into the presence of God from the present age; no way to perfect the conscience through the gifts and sacrifices of the first covenant. But, verse 11: When Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, and let’s pause there. Remember that the first section of the tent was symbolic of the present age, and showed us that just as we couldn’t get to the presence of God through the first section, so we can’t get to God through the present age. But what does verse 11 say happened? It says another high priest came, Christ, who is a high priest of the good things that have now come. In other words, since we couldn’t get to the presence of God from the present age, Christ came from the age to come, and brought it into the present, so that now the good things of which he is the high priest have come! A long time ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days, he has spoken to us by his Son (Heb 1:1-2). And what did he do when he appeared?
Verse 11 goes on to say that through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places. Here this is referring to his ascension into heaven, as Hebrews 4 described him as the priest who has “passed through the heavens”. Back in chapter 8 we read of how the earthly tent was made after the pattern God showed Moses on the mountain, which implies that it in some way images the invisible heavens, the place of God’s dwelling. When the prophet Isaiah had a vision of the LORD, he saw him on a throne, high and lifted up, kind of like the mercy seat functioned like a throne in the holiest of the holy. There’s an element of mystery in all this that should caution us against trying to create an architectural rendering of heaven, but the point is that Jesus entered into that holy place, the true dwelling place of God, not by means of the blood of goats and calves, as verse 12 says, but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.
Remember the process of the sacrifice in Leviticus. The worshiper first killed the animal outside the tent, then the priest took the blood inside the tent. And what happened in Jesus’ case? First he shed his blood on earth when he died on the cross, but then he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, and just as the high priest only entered the holy places with blood, so Jesus only entered the holy place with blood, except instead of the blood of an animal, it was by his own blood which he had already shed on the cross! And what that did is it secured an eternal redemption. Remember that what the sacrifices of the first covenant did was it made it possible for a sinful people to continue living with a holy God in their midst. Without them, the holiness of God would break out in judgment and kill the people, as happened elsewhere in the Old Testament. The sacrifices offered under the first covenant redeemed them, freed them, from that curse, but only for a time. Eventually, they all still died. Those sacrifices saved them from the wrath of God in the present age, in this creation, but when Christ came from the age to come, the eternal high priest of the eternal age, and entered into the tent not of this creation, he secured an eternal redemption, so that all who draw near to God through him, through his mediation, rather than through the mediation of the former priests, are saved not only from the wrath of God in this life, but from the wrath to come (cf. Rom 5:9-10, 1 Thess 1:10).
And our author proves his assertion in verses 13-14, with which our passage this week concludes. He starts by returning to the former sacrifices of the former priests. He says there that the blood of goats and bulls and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer sanctify for the purification of the flesh. We saw in Leviticus and have talked already in this sermon about how the blood of goats and bulls could be used for purification. Here the author also refers to another section in the law, where when one came into contact with a dead body, which rendered one ceremonially unclean, one could be cleansed by being sprinkled with water that had been combined with the ashes of a heifer who was burned outside the camp as a sin offering (Num 19:1-19). And the author is basically saying, “Look, if that worked to purify the flesh, (which it did)…how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God”?
I mean, think about the blood of Christ in comparison to the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer. Those were animals; Jesus was truly human, and therefore a more fitting representative of us as humans. And not only was he human, he was the eternal Son of God, one in being with the Father, the one through whom all things were made. The worshiper offered these animals to God, and then the priest did, but neither the worshiper or the priest ultimately offered themselves. The animal represented them, but Jesus offered himself. He is both the high priest and the sacrifice. The animals they offered were ceremonially unblemished, but Jesus was truly unblemished, having been tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin (Heb 4:15). The high priest entered the holiest of the holy on earth only once per year, but Jesus Christ entered the holy places once for all. The former priests entered themselves, but could not bring anyone else with them. Jesus Christ has gone before us as a forerunner on our behalf, that we might be with him where he is (Heb 6:20).
If the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sanctified for the purification of the flesh, how much more then will the blood of Christ purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. Not only has Christ entered the holy places as a forerunner on our behalf, but Christ’s blood purifies our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. I mentioned earlier that our conscience condemns us. It makes us aware of our guilt and shame because we have sinned. How can it really be perfected; how can it really be purified? Now we find out. Christ did not come to tell us that our sins are not so bad, or that we really should lighten up and go easy on ourselves. Instead, our sins were so bad that our conscience could only be truly purified if he shed his blood for them, and that’s what he did when he died on the cross. How can your conscience be truly purified? Turn from your sins, turn from your own efforts to cleanse your conscience, and instead trust in Christ and what he did on the cross on your behalf, and you can know in that moment that all your sins are forgiven. Every last one of them was placed on Christ on the cross. He was defiled for them in death, and rose purified, to offer to God his own unblemished blood on behalf of all who would draw near to God through him.
And so our passage concludes that our consciences have not been purified from dead works simply so we feel better, but so that we might serve the living God. That word translated serve in verse 14 is the same Greek word in the original language as the word translated worship in verse 1, and it is the same word translated in verse 6 as “ritual duties”. What the priests did under the first covenant, we all get to do under the new covenant: Serve the living God, only we get to do it in the heavenly tent, with purified and perfected consciences. Did you know that’s what’s happening when we gather for worship here on Sundays? There is nothing spiritually special about this building; it’s a former Fraternal Order of Police building now owned by the Philadelphia Boys and Girls Choir. Nor is there anything spiritually special about the Hagia Sophia, the Cathedral at Notre Dame, or Westminster Abbey. To enter the presence of God, you don’t need to go to any of those places. Instead, we draw near to God in his heavenly dwelling place, and join the heavenly assembly, when we draw near to him through Jesus Christ, the high priest of the good things that have come. That’s what happens anytime two or three gather in his name (Matt 18:20), and that’s what happens even when you go into your room, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father who is in secret (Matt 6:6).
So draw near to God through him today. Some of you here today have never done that before. You perhaps have attended church gatherings, maybe you have even identified yourself as a Christian, but you remain distant from God as he remains at a distance from you, and your conscience is still defiled. Trust Christ today, and he will purify your conscience. Let’s talk after the service about what that would mean for your life. To you who are trusting in Jesus today, don’t let a defiled conscience keep you from serving the living God. When you see sin remaining in your life, don’t hide from God. Draw near to him, confess your sin, trust in the blood of Christ to cleanse you of it, and turn from those dead works to serve the living God. Do you see that Jesus purified your conscience for that very reason? How common is that people ask, sometimes even Christians ask, “Well if the blood of Christ cleanses us from all sin, why shouldn’t we just go ahead and keep sinning?” and while a longer answer is possible, from verse 14 alone we can say the answer is because the very purpose of Christ’s cleansing you from sin was so that you might sin no more, but serve the living God!
And now you can serve him and worship him and know him and enjoy communion with him without the slavish fear that inevitably accompanied those who worshiped him through the former priests with imperfected consciences from a distance. When you’ve sinned, when you’re tempted, when you’re suffering, when you’re lonely, when you can’t figure it all out, do you hide from God, or do you draw near to him? What are you afraid of if you draw near? What or who do you think is more worthy of your trust? If you hear this message and choose to remain outside of Christ, you have good reason to be afraid, but in Christ, we have a privilege that those who worshiped God through the former priests did not. We can go to him today in his heavenly tent with confidence, and serve the living God. If you notice your communion with God is lacking, don’t give in to the temptation to turn from Christ and try to find it elsewhere. Christ is the only way to true communion with God, true worship of God, and he enables it in a way far beyond what the former priests could.