“Now when these things had been thus prepared, the priests always went into the first part of the tabernacle, performing the services. But into the second part the high priest went alone once a year, not without blood, which he offered for himself and for the people’s sins committed in ignorance; the Holy Spirit indicating this, that the way into the Holiest of All was not yet made manifest while the first tabernacle was still standing. It was symbolic for the present time in which both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make him who performed the service perfect in regard to the conscience—concerned only with foods and drinks, various washings, and fleshly ordinances imposed until the time of reformation” (Hebrews 9:6-10).
For the Israelites, no place was more revered than the sanctuary. Here God placed His great name. Here God met with His people. Here God accepted sacrifices for sins. This is why the Jews viewed the destruction of the sanctuary in 586 B.C. and again in 70 A.D. as immeasurable catastrophes.
Yet, as glorious and important as the sanctuary was, its ordinances, furnishings, and services were made obsolete by the coming of Christ. As stated in Hebrews 8:13, “Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.”
From Shadow to Substance
The sanctuary was merely a picture of “the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation” (9:11). Virtually everything about the sanctuary pointed to Christ and the New Covenant—a covenant based on grace, not works.
Many of the sanctuary furnishings foreshadowed Christ. The lampstand was a symbol of Christ, the Light of the world. The table of showbread, Christ the Bread of life. The altar of incense, prayers acceptable to God through Christ. Blood sprinkled on the mercy seat of the ark of the covenant, the atoning blood of Christ. In fact, in Romans 3:25 Jesus Himself is called a propitiation—literally, a mercy seat.
When Christ established the New Covenant in His blood, the Old Covenant became obsolete. Therefore, for the Hebrew Christians to return to the Old Covenant would mean settling for a picture of Christ instead of embracing the Person of Christ. What a contrast!
From Barriers to Full and Free Access
The sanctuary was a place of barriers. No Israelite was able to approach God directly. Only priests were allowed into the Holy Place. Only the high priest was permitted to enter the Most Holy Place—and this but once each year on the Day of Atonement. On that solemn day, the high priest’s dress, words, washings, and sacrifices were strictly regulated. His failure to comply with God’s instructions would result in instant death.
By these barriers, the Holy Spirit was indicating “that the way into the Holiest of All was not yet made manifest while the first tabernacle was still standing” (9:8). But the way to God was made gloriously manifest through the death of Jesus Christ.
When Jesus cried out “It is finished” on the cross, the thick veil in the sanctuary was torn from top to bottom, from heaven to earth; signifying that the way was open for us to approach God freely, fully, and personally. As Paul wrote in Romans 5:1-2, “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also WE HAVE ACCESS by faith into this grace in which we stand.” For the Hebrew Christians, forsaking Christ would mean exchanging the full freedom of the Gospel for the full condemnation of the Law. What a contrast!
From Incomplete Sacrifices to Full Atonement
The sanctuary was a bloody place. Though animal sacrifices were made daily and annually, they could not “make him who performed the service perfect in regard to the conscience” (9:9). For it was not possible “that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins” (10:4). These sacrifices merely pointed to the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ. As stated in Hebrews 9:28, “Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many.” What a contrast!
Through that once-for-all sacrifice, we confidently proclaim with the apostle Paul, “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).
Mark Weis is pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, with locations in North Port and Fort Myers, Florida.