Sermon preached on Hebrews 8:1-6 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 8/19/2018 in Novato, CA.
“A More Excellent Ministry”
Hebrews has been giving us such an amazing picture of Jesus as our Great High Priest. That point is summarized starting in verse 1. But don’t worry, he’s not done teaching about the priesthood of Jesus. He still has lots more to tell us and we will get more today about the nature of Jesus’ priestly service. But notice the summary point that is made here. Verse 1 starts out with the words “Now this is the main point of the things we are saying.” We might think that main point is then given in verse 1 and only verse 1. But notice in the pew Bibles that verse 1 ends with just a comma. The period comes at the end of verse 2. I believe that’s the right way to punctuate the Greek here. The main point he has in mind is in both verses 1 and 2. So then let me read his full main point again: “We have such a High Priest, who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a Minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle which the Lord erected, and not man.” When we read the main point like this we see it speaks of a royal priest, a king who is also our priest. The right hand reference speaks to his kingly authority, seated now in glory at the right hand of God. That was the point that Hebrews made in its opening chapters. And of course the priestly reference to Christ reminds us of our more recent chapters in Hebrews, that have shown Christ to be our great high priest. Notice in this summary that for both the kingship and the priesthood the reference is to the heavenly. His kingly authority is seated in his heavenly session at God’s right hand. And his priestly service is in the true tabernacle, which today’s passage will make very clear is a heavenly sanctuary and not an earthly one. So then, that becomes the focus of this passage and therefore our sermon for today. After giving this “main point” he then proceeds to further describe the heavenly nature of Christ’s priestly ministry in this “true tabernacle”.
So then, let’s begin in our first point with thinking how Jesus’ priestly ministry was done in the true tabernacle in comparison to the tabernacle of the Levitical priesthood. Note that the comparison is not true versus false. The Levitical priesthood didn’t minister in a false tabernacle. Here, the difference is between the true tabernacle versus a copy or shadow of the true tabernacle, per verse 5. It’s not true versus false, it’s the real thing versus an authorized copy of the real thing. So, don’t get me wrong, the Levitical priesthood had a real tabernacle that was ordained by God for old covenant worship. But their real tabernacle was not the real tabernacle.
Verse 5 clarifies what this means with an Old Testament quote. There, Hebrews quotes Exodus 25:40 where God instructs Moses about how he was to be constructing the earthly tabernacle. There we are reminded that when God told Moses how to build the tabernacle, it wasn’t just verbal instruction. God also showed him what to build. The language there in verse 5 is that God showed Moses the true tabernacle in heaven as the pattern for what Moses would build on earth. The word “pattern” there means that what God showed Moses from heaven was the archetype. It’s like a sculptor who looks at a human model and then sculps and molds the clay after the likeness of the real human being. Of course, in Moses’ case, God didn’t just show him the model; he also gave lots of explanation (you can find that in great detail in the book of Exodus). Nonetheless, Scripture emphasizes that God also showed Moses a pattern to follow. Interestingly, Scripture doesn’t per se describe what Moses saw, but it does go out of its way to tell us in four different places that Moses did see something: Exodus 25:9, 25:40, 26:30, and 27:8.
Thus, what Moses built was a copy of the real thing. As it says in verse 5, it is a copy and a shadow. Interestingly, some have suggested that Hebrews is coopting platonic ideas here. The Greek philosopher Plato had long before developed his “theory of forms” where he thought everything we see on earth is but a shadow of its true form which exists in a reality beyond this physical realm. And yet I would reply first that any actual similarity to Plato’s theory of forms is only superficial here; in substance Hebrews is describing something very different than Plato. Second, Hebrews is clearly getting this from Moses, and Moses’ writings are far earlier than Plato. Third, and maybe this is the important point here, that for Plato everything in this world can find its “ideal form” in some non-physical reality – such that our reality is not really reality, according to Plato. But for Moses and the tabernacle, this real, earthly tabernacle was out of the ordinary. Normally, people didn’t build things on earth based on God showing them a heavenly archetype. This stands out in Exodus as something extraordinary. For Moses, both earth and heaven are full of real things, but normally there is a great separation and distinction. But in the case of the tabernacle, God had Moses carefully fashion an earthly tabernacle after the original one up in heaven. At that time, that would have made the tabernacle Moses made an amazing thing! Moses was in a sense bringing something of heaven down to earth.
To further bring out the comparison between the two tabernacles, notice what verse 2 says. One tabernacle was man-made, i.e. Moses made it. The other was made by God. I like the language of verse 2 that says it was “erected” by the Lord. The word “erected” can also be translated as pitched a tent. Exodus 33:7 uses this same Greek word in the LXX to describe Moses pitching the tent of the earthly tabernacle. That’s what the tabernacle was – a big tent which was used as a place of worship. And so, I love how the word used to describe God making his heavenly sanctuary is this same word for pitching a tent. That makes you wonder what that real heavenly sanctuary looked like that God showed Moses. The closeness of language between God pitching the tent of the heavenly sanctuary and Moses pitching the tent of the earthly tabernacle show again both similarity and difference. But from the Old Covenant perspective this would have been wonderful.
And so, it’s this earthly representation of the heavenly tabernacle where the Levites performed their priestly duties. Well, the point then is that as awesome as that was, Jesus did his priestly ministry in the real deal. His ministry was not done in the earthly representation of the heavenly tabernacle. His ministry was done in the heavenly tabernacle itself. As awesome as it was at the time to serve in a copy and a shadow of the heavenly tabernacle, of course it is more awesome to serve in the real and true tabernacle. This doesn’t demean the tabernacle under the old covenant, but it does put it in its right place. If I take a high resolution picture of same famous painting, and then use it to teach an art class, art students could benefit from that, and no one would have a problem with that. But if I told people that my copy was the original, and tried to sell it like that, then my copy would be called a counterfeit. Likewise, as long as everyone appreciates that the Mosaic tabernacle was a copy and a shadow of the real thing, then we can appreciate the purpose God used it for. But we must also appreciate what the real tabernacle is in comparison. That’s where Jesus does his priestly ministry; and that is part of why it’s a more excellent ministry than the Levitical priesthood.
So then, let’s turn now in our second point to explore further the contrast between the heavenly versus the earthly. In our first point, we established how the earthly tabernacle was a copy of the heavenly. That comparison of the earthly and the heavenly is throughout this passage. Verses 1 mentions Jesus being seated now in the heavens. Verse 2 and 5 sees that true tabernacle as being in the heavens. Verse 4 references how Jesus’ ministry is not done on earth. Certainly, before this passage, Hebrews has already been emphasizing the heavenliness of Jesus at this point. In chapters 1 and 2, for example, it spoke of Jesus being exalted above the angels when he ascended up into heaven to be seated at the right hand of God. In chapters 3 and 4, Hebrews spoke of how Jesus ultimately brings us into a heavenly rest, which was better than the earthly rest they had in the physical Promised Land of the old covenant. There in chapter 4 it first talked about Jesus being this high priest who has passed through the heavens through which we can now approach God in confidence. In Hebrews chapter 5, Jesus’ time now in heaven is specifically contrasted with the time of suffering he had in the flesh on earth. I could go on, but my point is that here and so far in Hebrews, there is this emphasis on Jesus’ exalted heavenly position. It is in the arena of heaven that Jesus has chiefly done his priestly service.
This is important because it has ramifications for the kind of ministry that goes on in the earthly versus the heavenly tabernacle. Ministry in an earthly tabernacle is intrinsically different that ministry in a heavenly tabernacle. This point is made in verse 4 when it says that Jesus wouldn’t even have been a priest if his priestly ministry was to be done on earth in that Mosaic tabernacle. That’s because the law of the old covenant would have prohibited according to the flesh from serving since he wasn’t a descendant of Aaron of the tribe of the Levites. I’ve already pointed to how that was vividly seen with King Uzziah when he tried to serve in the earthly sanctuary under the old covenant and God struck him with leprosy.
And so, Jesus’s priesthood is not earthly but heavenly. It is inherently different; of a different kind. We see this brought out in verse 3 in terms of the priestly ministry of gifts and sacrifices. It notes that the Levitical priests offered these. Of course, we know all about those. They were fleshly sacrifices of bulls and goats, etc. The Torah, especially the book of Leviticus records these in great detail. Hebrews 9 will get into those in more detail and speak of how they pointed to the need for the shedding of blood to atone for sin, but they could never provide complete atonement for mankind. That’s why we need Jesus to offer a sacrifice of a different, greater, nature. Verse 3 points out that for Jesus to be a high priest, he too had to have an offering to bring. That offering is not stated here, but that’s because he already stated in last chapter and will state it again in more detail next chapter. The offering that Jesus brought is himself. And what’s implied here and brought out more clearly in the next chapter is that he brought that offering into this true tabernacle. There, he entered into the real heavenly sanctuary when he died on the cross. Whatever fleshly and earthly component was involved through his death on the cross, we see here that there was even more so a spiritual and heavenly dimension as well.
The significance of this is in terms of our gospel hope. Hebrews has been showing that our hope is not an earthly hope but a heavenly hope. As it said in Hebrews 3:1, ours is a “heavenly calling.” Thus, it is fitting for this heavenly calling that Christ’s priestly atonement for us is one done not in the flesh but in the spirit and one done not in an earthly tabernacle but in a heavenly one. In other words, the trajectory in terms of our hope is heavenward into the heavenly, eternal glory of the age to come. It would be backwards to seek glory here on earth in this present age. The Mosaic tabernacle and the Levitical priesthood itself already looked into that trajectory with its copy and shadow of a tabernacle. So, of course, Jesus in securing the promised redemption would accomplish our atonement by bringing it before God in the true, heavenly tabernacle.
Let’s turn now in our third and final point for today to work through some of the implications of this teaching. I see some of these implications stated in verse 6. Implication number 1 is that this priestly ministry of Jesus is better; it is a more excellent ministry than the Levitical priesthood. It is surely better because its done in the real tabernacle and not the copy and shadow. It is surely better because of the heavenly versus the earthly dimension. This is what we’ve been seeing. Therefore, there is no place for a Levitical priesthood anymore, nor is there is a place for an earthly, physical tabernacle or temple anymore. It’s unfortunate, that there are some Christians today who are confused at this point. I imagine similar confusion had to exist back then and that is why Hebrews was written. There are some today, trying to wrestle with various Old Testament prophecies, that think God is going to rebuild a physical temple in earthly Jerusalem before the end of this present age. They also believe there will be a return to earthly, animal sacrifices in that tabernacle. But Hebrews shows us here that there is no going back! We should have no interest in rebuilding another earthly copy in Jerusalem of the true, heavenly temple. That’s the wrong direction of redemptive history. Our trajectory now should be heavenward!
A second implication is that the covenant has changed and the new one is better than the old one. Verse 6 states this by saying that Jesus is the mediator of a better covenant and that this covenant has better promises. Hebrews will be going into more detail on the difference between the new and old covenants starting in next week’s passage. So, I won’t go into too much detail on this today. But I will give an initial implication for both the covenant mediation and the covenant promises in light of today’s theme.
In terms of the covenant mediation, the idea of a mediator here is about someone being a go-between. Jesus is our go-between. He goes between us and God; he bridges the gap so that the divine and the human can be in fellowship. And in light of today’s theme, he is the one who bridges the gap between the earthly and the heavenly. We have always known life in an earthly way. Yet, in Christ and by his Spirit he has begun to give us a taste of the heavenly. That taste is what we look forward to in the full in glory. Christ is the one who brings us to this heavenly destination in the age to come, even as we get a foretaste of it now.
In terms of the covenant promises, we can again thing of the contrast between the earthly and the heavenly. Though the heavenly promises ultimately stood behind the mosaic types and shadows, we nonetheless can think of the specific earthly emphasis to the promises of the Mosaic covenant. Deuteronomy 28 listed all the physical blessings in the earthly promised land held out under that old covenant. That old covenant also provided for mediated access to God’s presence in a veiled way in an earthly sanctuary. The old covenant even provided for ways the people could have earthly, ceremonial cleanliness. But under the new covenant, we have and will have every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, Ephesians 1:3. Similarly, as we will see next week, the new covenant promises not only to give outward cleanliness, but inward purification of the heart; making us fit for our future heavenly glory. More can be said on this and more will be said as we continue to work through the differences between the old and new covenants in the weeks ahead.
So then, this is the great high priest and king that we have now in Jesus Christ. Let us each be renewed in our faith in Christ again today, even as we rejoice in the heavenly benefits we have in him. Of course, in response to such a great high priest, we should be drawn to worship our great God in joy and gratitude. And so, I’d like to ask a final question in light of today’s passage. If we are going to worship God, where do we now worship under the new covenant? I’ve made the point that now there is no place for an earthly tabernacle. That would be going backwards in redemptive history. So then, where do we worship God? Well, it’s at this question that we remember all the New Testament passages that say that now God’s people are the temple of God. Paul says this explicitly in 1 Corinthians 3:16. Peter agrees, saying in 1 Peter 2 of us, “You also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” Similarly, Jesus told the Samaritan women at the well that worship at the temple in Jerusalem had become obsolete, and that we now need to worship in spirit and in truth. The New Testament is very clear that now under the new covenant, there is no longer an earthly tabernacle but rather the church themselves is declared to be the place of worship for God’s people.
Hopefully, now, with our detailed study in Hebrews, this is all the more making sense. To clarify, God’s people are not being described as just a new covenant copy and shadow of the true, heavenly tabernacle. For God’s people to be described as God’s temple and sanctuary on earth is because when we worship God now, we are actually worshipping in this true, heavenly tabernacle, in Christ. Remember, Hebrews said last chapter that we now draw near to God through Jesus (7:19). It also said back in 4:16 that with Christ as our High Priest we can now draw near to God’s throne of grace. Likewise, chapter 6 speaks of how we as the church taste now of the powers of the age to come and of the heavenly gift of the Holy Spirit. If all that isn’t clear enough, it will become even more explicit in Hebrews 12:22, saying that we worship in the heavenly Jerusalem, which is the real Mount Zion. In the old covenant, Moses brought a picture of heaven down to earth in the form of the earthly tabernacle. In Christ and the new covenant, we are brought spiritually from earth up to heaven to worship in the true tabernacle! Praise the Lord!
Our heavenward hope means that even now, the church is spiritually worshipping in this true tabernacle. That’s, as Jesus said, how true worshippers are now to worship. That is where Jesus does his priestly ministry, and it’s where we worship God in Jesus. Remembering then how the old covenant’s earthly tabernacle called for physical cleanliness of its worshippers, let us make a new covenant application. Let us, by the grace of God, pursue inward holiness and cleanness as true worshippers of this sort who have been redeemed by Christ’s sacrifice. Amen.
Copyright © 2018 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.