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Sermon preached on Hebrews 9:1-15 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 9/2/2018 in Novato, CA.
“Ordinances of Divine Service”
Today’s passage revisits and further develops what we read at the start of chapter 8, that Jesus’ priestly service was in the true, heavenly tabernacle whereas the Levitical priestly service was done in an earthly tabernacle. So, we continue to compare this old covenant priestly service with the new covenant priestly service that we have in Christ as our Great High Priest. As we continue to learn from the comparisons between the two priesthoods, we’ll see today more about the legitimacy but also the limitations of the old covenant priesthood. Then we’ll get to see how God addressed these limitations in Christ and his high priesthood in the new covenant. This is in fact what we’ve needed and so we’ll be wonderfully encouraged again today in the grace of God in redeeming us in Christ Jesus.
Let us then begin by first seeing what this passage tells us about the legitimacy of the old covenant service. This is important to keep reminding ourselves as we keep going through the book of Hebrews and seeing how much better we have things in Christ and the new covenant compared to the old. Yes, the new is better, but that doesn’t mean the old was illegitimate. It was good for the time and purpose God intended. This passage then speaks to some of the good things that were there under the old covenant. We see this in summary in the first verse. Verse 1 acknowledges that the first covenant, the Mosaic covenant, had ordinances of divine service and a sanctuary, albeit an earthly one. That word “service” is sometimes translated as worship, because it refers so often the religious service done by priests in the context of divine worship. And the sanctuary in verse 1 is a reference to their tabernacle that we talked about last chapter, the one Moses created based on the heavenly pattern God showed him. These two aspects, the ordinances for priestly service and the tabernacle both relate to the legitimacy of the old covenant worship. We’ll touch on both here.
Regarding the ordinances for priestly service, we start by recognizing why they are ordinances. They were ordinances because God commanded them. They were regulations imposed upon them, as it mentions in verse 10, that same word for ordinances appearing there too. With regard to the specific ordinances, we see that the same word for service from verse 1 also appears again in verse 6. There in verse 6 it specifically mentions the priests doing such services. So, the many different ordinances relating priestly service find their legitimacy first in the fact that it was according to God’s command. He instituted that first covenant through Moses and gave these priestly provisions for the Levites. As we see in verses 6 and 7, these ordinances included things for the priest to do regularly throughout the year. There were daily and yearly services to be performed. And actually, the reference to the showbread back in verse 2 involved a weekly duty; every sabbath they had to replace the bread. So many different priestly duties were required by God and therefore legitimized by God under the old covenant.
Furthermore, we see the effectual nature of those ordinances. We see descriptions of the various offerings done in these priestly services. There was blood shed, verse 7. There were requirements for food and drinks and various washings, verse 10. Verse 13 expands on these to even go as far as to say that they did have a real cleansing power. It says they sanctified for the purifying of the flesh. Yes, we’ll go on to see the need for better cleansing but don’t miss that the text acknowledges that there was a real cleansing value to them. On a related note, we can think of so many washings under the old covenant that would a made a lot of sense from a physical, health standpoint. There’s the saying cleanliness is next to godliness and in the old covenant there was a close connection between the two. Just like washing your hands before a meal has a value for physical purity and cleanliness, so too there was certainly a pragmatic value for of all the Levitical priesthood ordinances regarding ceremonial cleanliness. If nothing else, they provided some physical benefits for physical sanitation. In fact, many of those principles find similar expressions today in our civil laws regarding public health and sanitation. So, there was a value in this priestly service even in that regard.
So then, regarding the earthly sanctuary from the Mosaic covenant, we see the legitimacy of that as well here. Start with description of all the furnishings that we find in verses 2-5. These again were in the tabernacle because God commanded them to be, and they were part of how they followed the ordinances we just mentioned. In verse 2, the lampstand needed to be kept lit by the priests all night long, ever night. The table with the showbread needed to be refreshed weekly. The golden censer in verse 4, probably better translated as a reference to the golden altar of incense, was particularly used during the annual Day of Atonement ceremony by the high priest. And the ark of the covenant contained the tablets that witnessed to the very covenant they had with God, not to mention the testimony provided by the manna and Aaron’s rod, all which served to authenticate the supernatural and divine nature of Israel’s relationship with the one, true God. The reference to the mercy seat which was the lid of the ark, was also involved in the offering of the sacrifices on the annual Day of Atonement. All these furnishings are part of what God instituted for his service and worship under the old covenant. They all served a purpose for that kind of worship.
And then you have the cherubim of glory on the ark. It would be easy to think these just provided symbolic value. But according to the Old Testament, there was a way in which the presence of God especially dwelt between the cherubim upon that ark, Exodus 25:22, 2 Samuel 6:2, etc. This more than anything legitimized that old covenant tabernacle. Even though God ultimately is understood to be heaven, he made that ark his footstool on earth, so that his presence especially was there among the people at that ark, above the mercy seat, between the two cherubim. Remember what is found in Exodus 40, when Moses finished making the Tabernacle. Exod. 40:34, “Then the cloud covered the tabernacle of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.” It’s similarly why Uzzah was killed by God when he inappropriately touched the ark in 2 Samuel 6:7, when they weren’t following the proper ordinances for moving the ark.
This then explains the language of holiness that we see here and in the Old Testament. The word in verse 1 for sanctuary actually is a form of word for holy. That same root and word “sanctuary” appears again in verse 2 and would be better translated there as the “Holy Place”. That’s the first chamber inside the tabernacle, where the priests did their regular work. And then in verse 3 it describes the inner chamber where the ark of the covenant was and describes that as the Holiest of All, or also known as the Holy of Holies. The holiness there was because of God’s special presence being there. The closer you got to the ark where God dwelt above the mercy seat between the cherubim, you closer you were getting to holiness. Thus, the whole tabernacle can be referred to as holy, and especially these two compartments where the priests did their various services. And that is why the inner chamber would be called the Holy of Holies since that was the focal point of the heavenly God’s special presence on earth. That was the most holy spot in the tabernacle. Surely this is the pinnacle of why this old covenant tabernacle was legitimate: because the presence of the Holy God was there.
Let’s now turn in our second point to see the limitations of this old covenant priestly service and sanctuary. We’ll talk about the limitations from the vantage point of the two aspects we mentioned of their legitimacy: their ordinances and their sanctuary. So, first think of the limitations pertaining to all the priestly ordinances. It is very clear here that the priestly ordinances only dealt with the flesh; with the outward. They didn’t have the power to truly cleanse the inner, heart of man. That’s said in verse 9, with regard to the priests. The priest who did these ordinances, could not find perfection of conscience in doing these fleshly ordinances. Again, verse 13 noted how these ordinances could purify flesh, but it states that to show that they couldn’t go deeper than that. Note in verse 9 the language of symbolism. That’s really important to get here. It’s what we see Jesus doing in the gospels. He picks up the idea of cleanliness and purification held out in all these rituals, but he points to the heart. He says that the kind of purification people ultimately need is something within them. But of course, that only makes the point that the old covenant ordinances were limited in this way. They pointed beyond themselves to a greater cleaning, but they themselves only could provide earthly and fleshly benefits.
The other limitation is seen with regard to the sanctuary. We said that the legitimacy of that tabernacle was the holiness of God that was present in it. Yet that is also where we see the limitations. I point you for starters to verse 3. It mentions a second veil or curtain through which you would enter the Holy of Holies. This infers of course that there was a first veil or curtain to get into the first compartment, the Holy Place. So, on the one hand, there is this temple which provided access to God’s holiness. On the other hand, it was a veiled and limited access. The everyday people of God couldn’t get into either place, not the Holy Place and certainly not the Holy of Holies. But even then, the regular Levitical priests could only regularly access the Holy Place past the first curtain. Only the high priest was ever allowed beyond that into the Most Holy Place of the Holy of Holies where the ark and God’s presence was. And even then, he could only do that in a very, limited amount – just once a year for a short window of time!
Verse 8 connects the dots for us with a reference to the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit was speaking through all this, that under the old covenant tabernacle, the way into the Holy of Holies wasn’t really revealed. The veiled and limited access to the Holy of Holies under the old covenant spoke for the need yet for a real access to God’s holiness for his people. That’s the bottom line. The people under the old covenant really didn’t have access to God’s holiness under that old setup. There was a small degree of access through the high priest. But it was setup in such a way that people should have seen it pointed to the need for something better. It’s kind like if a father gives his child a prized collectible toy but makes him keep the toy, unopened in the box, left on a shelf to display. That might preserve the collectible-ness of the toy, but it’s surely not what the child wants. He wants to actually enjoy and play with the toy! Keeping it unopened on the shelf probably only reminds of him of that desire every time he looks at. So too, the old covenant sanctuary. The veiled and limited access to God should have made the people yearn for a real and regular and ongoing access to God for each and every one of God’s people.
This then brings us to our third point to see how these limitations are solved in Jesus Christ and his superior priesthood under the new covenant. With the coming of Christ, it is the coming of the reformation mentioned in verse 10. The old covenant priestly ordinances were legitimate but only for a time; only until the coming of Christ and the new covenant. That’s the explicit statement of verse 10. Now the superior has come, obsoleting and delegitimizing any future use of them.
Regarding the limitation of the ordinances, we see the superior results of Christ’ priestly service stated in several ways. In verse 14, he cleanses our conscience from our dead works. In verse 12, he obtained an eternal redemption for us. In verse 15, that redemption is related to sin, redemption from transgressions! The point is straightforward and clear. Jesus’ priestly service involved a sacrifice that could cleanse and purify in a way that the former old covenant ordinances could not. Verses 13-14 make this point with a “how much more” argument. If the old covenant priestly ordinances had outward benefits, how much more beneficial and effective is the kind of priestly service Jesus performed in offering his own blood. Jesus offered himself as the spotless lamb of God and as the blood of the eternal Son of God. His blood can truly cleanse, thus it only needed to be offered once and not over and over again. And his blood is sufficient value to truly redeem us, to purchase us out of sin and death. Hebrews asserts here that Jesus’ priestly service in offering himself did what the old covenant order could not accomplish. In fact, the old covenant sacrifices pictured what Christ would do. That would be the right way to understand those old covenant ordinances. They looked forward to the one sacrifice that would finally accomplish what the old ordinances could only picture symbolically.
Regarding the limitation of the access to God’s presence in the old covenant tabernacle, we see verse 11. In bringing the good things to come of the age to come, Jesus’ ministry was done in the true tabernacle up in heaven. As high priest, he secured an access to God for us by accomplishing his priestly atonement for us in the real heavenly sanctuary. How he accomplished this when he was physically crucified on earth at Calvary is specified there in verse 14. He offered himself through the eternal Spirit! Reading this in light of chapter 8, we are reminded that Jesus went into the heavenly Holy of Holies with his sacrifice of himself. He didn’t offer himself in the earthly Holy of Holies which was but God’s footstool on earth. He entered into heaven by the eternal Spirit and drew near the throne of God and made his offering there.
And unlike the high priest who only could go into God’s earthly holy presence once a year, Jesus continues in the Most Holy Place in the heavens. After the resurrection Jesus ascended on high and is seated now as our Great High Priest before God in the true Mount Zion. There, in his ascended glory, Jesus continues his priestly service, interceding for us before the heavenly presence of God and the glorious throne of grace. And though right now we even ourselves have access to that same throne room by his Spirit, we know that he will one day come again to bring us bodily into that glory of God’s true tabernacle. This is what we have in Jesus Christ, our Great High Priest and Mediator of the new covenant!
So then, the question becomes, are you a part of this covenant? If you are, then you have the benefits of Christ’s sacrifice and you have the access to God’s holiness we’ve described. You know, this passage repeatedly brought out the concern of our consciences. Our consciences rightly should be plagued with our sin. It’s our sin, undealt with, that would keep us from these new covenant blessings that we’ve described. It’s because of our sin that we need cleansing and redemption. Our sin is so staining, that there is not a soap in this world that can cleanse us deep enough. Our sin is so damning and indebting, that there is no bank account deep enough to pay for our crimes against God. Moses on his own, can’t deal with our sin problem or our guilty conscience. No Christian pastor today can either. Certainly, no other religion can, regardless of any claim it makes. There is only one who can save you from your sin and bring you into this covenant. That covenant mediator is Jesus Christ. Turn to him in repentance and faith and you will be saved. You will be redeemed from sin and death. You will have access to God and his holiness; now and all the more into eternity. If your conscience pangs you today because of your unrepentant sin, it may be God calling out to you right now. Repent and trust in Christ and be saved! It has to be in Christ and Christ alone!
In closing, brothers and sisters, I point us to one the values of a cleansed conscience according to verse 14. A conscience cleansed from dead works is one made to serve the living God. That word “serve” is especially important here. It comes from the same word for the priestly service we’ve been talking about the whole time today; the same one mentioned right in verse 1 about the service of the Levitical priests. Under the old covenant, none of us could serve like the Levites did; we wouldn’t be allowed even past the first curtain – not even Jesus. Under the new covenant, we have been so cleansed that we get to serve like our high priest – for the curtain has been removed, torn in two from top to bottom. We get to serve in the heavenly tabernacle, coming to the true Mount Zion and the presence of the Living God. We now live as priest of the Most High. Even now we are engaged in this priestly service as we worship him today. Let us then be faithful to be about this weekly service. But let us also lives as priests each and every day, being in prayer and in his Word as those present with God in Christ in the heavenly places. Let us be about that here and now, even while we await the final appearing of those “good things to come” mentioned in verse 11. Let us press on in heavenly priestly service done in the eternal Spirit while we live here on earth, while we patiently await those good things to come. Amen.
Copyright © 2018 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.