Studies in Hebrews, 1 & 2 Peter
14. Hebrews 9:1-10 - Worship in the First Tabernacle
The book of Hebrews tells us that Jesus Christ is the mediator of a better covenant. He has a better priesthood and a better ministry. Chapter 9 then describes in more detail the priestly ministry of our Savior.
The tabernacle (verses 1-5)
First, the old covenant ritual is described: “The first covenant had regulations for worship and also an earthly sanctuary.” The author does not write about the covenants made with Noah or Abraham, even though they came first. Rather, by “first” he means the covenant made at Sinai, because it is the covenant replaced by Jesus’ new covenant. The Sinai covenant had laws about how people could approach God.
“A tabernacle was set up. In its first room were the lampstand and the table with its consecrated bread; this was called the Holy Place” (see Exodus 25:23-40). The author describes the tabernacle rather than the temple, perhaps because the biblical details were given for a tabernacle, and that is what would be familiar to the readers.
“Behind the second curtain was a room called the Most Holy Place, which had the golden altar of incense and the gold-covered ark of the covenant” (see Exodus 25:10-22; 30:1-6). “This ark contained the gold jar of manna, Aaron’s staff that had budded, and the stone tablets of the covenant. Above the ark were the cherubim of the Glory, overshadowing the atonement cover. But we cannot discuss these things in detail now” (for details see Exodus 16:33-34; 25:18; Numbers 17:10; Deuteronomy 10:1-5).
What the rituals could not do (verses 6-10)
“When everything had been arranged like this, the priests entered regularly into the outer room to carry on their ministry. But only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance.” The high priest entered the Most Holy Place only on the Day of Atonement. Before he entered, he sacrificed a bull for his own sins, and later, a goat for the people (Leviticus 16:1-17).
What is the spiritual significance of this symbolism? “The Holy Spirit was showing by this that the way into the Most Holy Place had not yet been disclosed as long as the first tabernacle was still functioning.” In the tabernacle symbolism, God was near but not accessible. The symbolism hinted that there was a way to approach God, but almost no one could do it.
“This is an illustration for the present time, indicating that the gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper.” Despite the sacrifices, the people were unable to go to God, unable to enter his presence. The rituals could not bring about the reality that they symbolized.
“They are only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings — external regulations applying until the time of the new order.” Rituals are external actions, and they cannot change the heart. They do not cleanse the conscience. They were valid only until Christ came. Our author mentions the Levitical rituals, but we can follow the logic to see more. External rituals like circumcision are no longer required. Worship details no longer apply. The entire covenant is obsolete.
Author: Michael Morrison, PhD