The writer of this letter has been teaching us that the one who is Son is greater than the prophets; and he’s greater than the angels; and he’s greater than Moses; and he’s greater than Joshua.
He’s greater than the prophets, because, while God spoke through them at many times and in various ways, he has spoken his final and definitive word in his Son, who is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact imprint of his being.
And he’s greater than the angels, because, while God revealed his law through them, nevertheless the angels were made to worship and serve the Son, who is the Only Begotten Son of God and he’s the Eternal God who made all things.
And he’s greater than Moses, because, while Moses was faithful as a servant in God’s house, the one who is Son was faithful as a Son over God’s house. He’s not part of the house, as Moses was, but he’s the builder of the house. And when the writer referred to God’s house, he meant the church: all of God’s people.
And the Son is greater than Joshua, because, while Joshua was able to lead the Israeltes into the land of Canaan where they enjoyed a kind of rest, all who believe in the Son, and who continue to believe in him, without turning away from him with an sinful, unbelieving heart, will be brought into God’s eternal rest, which is everlasting life in the presence of God.
And so, the one who is Son is greater than all these others who were so important to the religion of Old Testament and to the old covenant which God made with his people in the days of Moses when he spoke to them through prophets and when he gave them his law through angels and when he gave them Moses and Joshua to lead them out of Egypt and into Canaan. What God did through them was marvellous; but what he has done by his Son is so much better.
That’s what chapters 1 and 2 and 3 and the first half of chapter 4 were about. But then, at verse 14 of chapter 4 the author began a new section which runs to verse 25 of chapter 10. And in this section of the book, he’s explaining to his readers that as well as being greater than the prophets and the angels and Moses and Joshua, the one who is Son is greater than the Old Testament priests, because they only served in the earthly sanctuary, which was a copy and shadow of the true sanctuary which is heaven. But the one who is Son has gone right into heaven to appear before God on our behalf, where he intercedes for us so that he’s continually appealing to God to give us the help we need to persevere in the faith so that we will not fall.
And, of course, those Old Testament priests couldn’t bring perfection. That is, they couldn’t provide the people with the forgiveness they needed to be able to approach God. But the Son is able to provide us with the forgiveness we need so that we can come before God in confidence, because he offered himself to God as the once-for-all, perfect sacrifice for the forgiveness of all our sins.
And so, the Son is a greater priest than the Old Testament priests. And not only is he a greater priest, but the covenant with which he’s associated is greater than the covenant with which the Old Testament priests were associated. They were associated with the covenant which God made with his people in the days of Moses, whereas the Son is associated with the new covenant which God announced through the prophet Jeremiah. Why did God have to make two covenants: An old one and a new one? Because the people broke the old covenant. They were not faithful to it. Though they promised that they would keep the terms of that covenant and do everything God commanded, they were not able to do so, because they were sinners and therefore sinfully inclined to disobey God. And so, since they broke that covenant, God announced that he would make a new covenant which would be better than the old one. He would write his laws, not on stone tablets, but on our hearts, hearts that are renewed by his Spirit. And his people would all know him personally. And he would forgive our wickedness and remember our sins no more.
And so, the Son is a greater high priest than the old high priests. And the covenant with which he is associated is greater than the covenant with which they were associated. And do you remember last week’s passage and how the author moved from speaking about priests to speaking about covenants? If you don’t remember, look back to verse 1 of chapter 8 where he said: ‘The point of what we are saying is this: We do have such a high priest….’ And then turn to verse 6 where he said: ‘But the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one….’ So, he went from discussing priests to discussing covenants. And he writes about priests and covenants in today’s passage as well, because priests and covenants are intertwined. They’re tied together. They go together. And that’s because the old covenant was established or mediated by the offering up of sacrifices to God. And what was true of the old covenant was true of the new covenant because it too was established or mediated by the offering up of a sacrifice to God.
So, in Exodus 24, when the old covenant was established, burnt offerings and fellowships offerings were made on an altar and Moses took the blood from the sacrifices and sprinkled it on the altar and on the people. And while he was sprinkling them, Moses said:
This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.
Now, Moses was not a priest, but what he did that day when he sprinkled that altar and the people with blood was the work of a priest. It was priestly activity.
And as the writer will make clear, the Lord Jesus, our great high priest, established the new and better covenant with a better sacrifice, because he established it with his own blood, shed on the cross. So, last Sunday morning we took part in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. And during the service, I quoted the words of the Lord Jesus, who, on the night he was betrayed, took bread and gave it to his disciples. And then he took the cup and said: ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood.’ So, the cup we drink as part of the Lord’s Supper signifies his blood which he shed on the cross when he died to establish the new and better covenant whereby God promises to forgive our wickedness and to remember our sins no more.
And so, that’s what today’s passage is about. It’s about covenants and priests. And the writer compares and contrasts the old covenant and the new covenant and the old priests with Christ our great high priest. And he goes back and forth between them. So, one minute he’s talking about the old covenant; and then he talking about the old priests. But then he’ll talk about the Lord Jesus who is our great high priest. But then he goes back to talking about the old covenant and the work of the priests. He goes back and forth.
Verses 1 to 5
And so, in verses 1 to 5, he writes about the old covenant and the regulations it contained for worship in the earthly sanctuary. And so, he says that a tabernacle was set up. And the tabernacle, which was really a large tent, contained two rooms. The first room was called the Holy Place; and the second room was called the Most Holy Place. The first room contained the lampstand and the table for the consecrated bread. The second room was located behind a curtain and it contained the ark of the covenant. The writer says it also contained the altar of incense. Now, according to the book of Exodus, the altar of incense was kept in the first room. However, it was closely associated with the second room, because whenever the high priest entered the Most Holy Place, he took with him burning incense which he had taken from the altar of incense. So, that might explain why our writer says the altar of incense was in the second room and not the first. He then goes on to tell us what was contained in the ark of the covenant. It contained some manna kept in a special jar; and Aaron’s staff which has budded. Do you remember that story? Some Israelites rebelled against Moses and Aaron and said they wanted to be priests too. So, God had to make clear who he wanted to be priest; and he made it clear by causing flower-buds to grow on Aaron’s staff whereas the staffs of the other men had no buds on them. And afterwards Aaron’s staff was kept in the ark. And then the stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written were also kept in the ark. And above the ark were statutes of cherubim to represent how the angels stand in the presence of God to worship him. And the top of the ark was known as the atonement cover. On the great Day of Atonement, blood from the sacrifice was sprinkled on the atonement cover to cleanse it from defilement.
Now, there are many things we could say about the tabernacle. However, the author says in verse 5 that we cannot discuss these things in detail now. He doesn’t want to get bogged down in the detail, because he has other things to say to us.
Verses 6 to 14
And what he wants to talk about are the priests: the Old Testament priests; and the Son who is a better priest. So, according to verse 6, when everything had been arranged according to the regulations laid down in the terms of the old covenant, the priests would enter the outer room to carry on their ministry. When he mentions the outer room, he’s referring to the Holy Place. Any priest was allowed to enter it; and they did so regularly, every day in fact, to make sure the lights on the lampstand were burning; and to replace the incense on the altar; and to replace the consecrated bread on the table. They did those things every day. And they could go in and go out of the Holy Place any time they needed to. However, only the high priest was allowed to go through the curtain and into the Most Holy Place. And the high priest could only enter the Most Holy Place once a year on the Day of Atonement. And when he entered the Most Holy Place, he had to bring blood from the sacrifice with him, which he offered for his own sins and for the sins of the people. The writer refers to sins ‘committed in ignorance’, because the law distinguished between sins which people committed by accident or thoughtlessly, and those people committed deliberately or defiantly. There were no sacrifices for sins committed defiantly, but there were sacrifices for those committed by accident. And the writer then explains that by these regulations the Holy Spirit was showing that the way into God’s presence had not yet been disclosed. In other words, the ordinary people could not go into the presence of God. They were shut out of his presence. And the reason they were shut out of his presence is because all those sacrifices, which the priests offered to God day by day, were not able to cleanse the conscience of the worshippers. In fact, we’re told elsewhere that all the sacrifices did was to remind the people that they were sinners. They were sinners who were waiting for a better sacrifice to take away their sins forever.
And the writer goes on in verse 10 to mention food and drink and ceremonial washings. So, he’s probably referring to the food laws which are laid down in Leviticus 11; and to the rules which are laid down in Leviticus 12 to 15 about how the people were to cleanse themselves after becoming ceremonially unclean. And so, if someone became ceremonially unclean they had to undergo certain rituals before they were made clean again. And those regulations — which the priest supervised — were fine if I touched something I shouldn’t have touched and become ceremonially unclean. But what can I do about the fact that I’ve fallen short of loving God with all my heart; and I’ve fallen short of loving my neighbour as myself? What can I do about the fact that I deserve to be condemned and punished by God as a lawbreaker? Can I receive forgiveness for my sins? Ceremonial cleanness is one thing; but I need my sins washed away, because my sins are what are keeping me from the presence of a holy God. And those Old Testament sacrifices cannot help me with that, because even after the high priest had offered the right sacrifices, no one apart from him was allowed to enter the Most Holy Place. Everyone else had to stay away. In fact, the high priest could only go in once a year and for a brief amount of time. So, how can we ever hope to come into the presence of God and live with him forever?
The solution to our predicament comes in verse 11 where it says that when Christ came as high priest, he went through, not the earthly tabernacle which is a copy and shadow of heaven, but he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made and part of this creation. That is to say, he went through the heavens and he went right into the presence of God. So, he’s got that advantage over the old covenant priests. They could only enter the earthly copy of heaven, whereas the Lord Jesus has entered heaven itself and he’s gone right into the presence of God.
And here’s something else he has over them. They could only enter by the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer. The reference to the ashes of a heifer refers to Numbers 19 when a heifer was burnt outside the camp and its ashes were added to water which was then used to purify people who had become unclean. But those sacrifices and those washings had to be repeated over and over and over again, because the benefit of those sacrifices and washings was always temporary. So, every time you fill up your car with fuel, you know it’s only temporary, because the fuel will be used up and very soon you’ll have to stand at the pump again to fill the car again. And the Israelites knew that very soon they would need to wash themselves again and offer another sacrifice again, because the effect of those sacrifices was always temporary.
But the Lord Jesus has entered heaven by his own blood. And when he mentions Christ’s blood, he’s referring to how the Lord Jesus shed his blood when he died on the cross for us. And the effect of his death for us is eternal. That is, it is never-ending. He obtained for us an eternal redemption, which means that the benefits of his death will never run out; and the power of his death to deliver us from our sin and misery will never have to be replenished or recharged.
And so, the effect of his death is eternal. It’s never-ending. And the effect of his death is also deeper, because the sacrifices which the old covenant priests offered could only provide outward, ceremonial cleanness. But the blood of the Lord Jesus — his death on the cross for us — cleanses our conscience from acts that lead to death. Do you see that in verse 14? When he says ‘acts that lead to death’, he means our sins, because the wages of sin is death. And when he refers to our conscience, he means that we need to be cleansed inwardly. As the Lord Jesus made clear in Mark’s gospel, the thing that makes us unclean is not what we eat or drink, but it’s our heart which makes us unclean and unfit to come into the presence of God, because our heart is a house of horrors, full of sinful thoughts and desires and inclinations which cause us to do sinful deeds. And so, we need to be cleansed inwardly. Our sinful hearts need to be made clean. And the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ is able to clean us inwardly. And so, the effect of his death is not only eternal, but it also reaches deep down into our heart and soul to purify us from all our guilt.
And the end result of his deep-cleaning of us is that we will serve the living God. We become clean instruments which he’s able to use in the world for his own glory.
Verses 15 to 28
Do you remember what I said at the beginning about how priests and covenants are intertwined, because covenants are established or mediated by priests? Well, in verse 15 the writer says ‘for this reason, Christ is the mediator of a new covenant.’ When he says ‘For this reason’, he’s referring to Christ’s death on the cross. By virtue of his death on the cross to cleanse his people inwardly, he has become the mediator of a new covenant. That means he has established it. He’s put it into action by his death. By his death, he’s opened a fountain through which all the benefits of the new covenant come to us.
And those who are called to belong to God’s new covenant people receive an eternal inheritance. So, under the terms of the old covenant, God’s people inherited the land of Canaan. But under the terms of the new covenant, God’s people inherit eternal life in the new heavens and earth. And we’re able to receive this inheritance because Christ died and gave up his life as the ransom to pay for all that we have done wrong. He took the blame for us so that, instead of being condemned, which is what we deserve for our sins, we may receive the promised eternal inheritance.
And suddenly, the writer switches back to Moses and the old covenant. Do you see that in verse 18? The first covenant was put into effect with blood, because after Moses received the terms of the covenant from the Lord on Mount Sinai, and the people promised to do all that the Lord commanded, Moses sacrificed offerings to the Lord and he took the blood of the sacrifice and sprinkled it on the scroll and the people. And the writer goes on in verse 20 to tell us that in the same way Moses sprinkled the tabernacle and everything in it. In fact, he tells us, the law requires nearly everything to be cleansed with blood. And the blood was for the forgiveness of sins. That is, everything needed to be cleansed because of the defilement caused by their sin. Their sin defiled everything and made everything ceremonially unclean. How could God live among them when the tabernacle was unclean? And so, everything had to be cleansed.
You know those ads that are sometimes shown on TV that show us the germs we leave behind whenever we touch something or someone. Normally we can’t see the germs, but the ad shows us where they are there and how we infect everything. Well, by means of all of rules and regulations about ceremonial uncleanness and defilement, God was teaching his people that all of us, by nature, are unclean and defiled. But our problem is deeper than ceremonial uncleanness. Our problem is the spiritual uncleanness in our hearts which defiles and spoils everything we do and say. And so, think about your life this past week and the things you said which you shouldn’t have said; think of the things you did which you shouldn’t have done. Why did you do and say those things? It’s because you’re a sinner and your sinful heart — which lies at the centre of your sinful nature — causes you to say and do things which you shouldn’t do. And so, you sin against other people; and you sin against the Lord who made you. And while the Lord gave his people in Old Testament times priests to offer sacrifices for them, those sacrifices and those ceremonial washings were designed to teach the people that they needed a better sacrifice and they needed to be cleansed inwardly.
And so, from verse 23 on, the writer goes back to repeating what he’s already said about the better sacrifice which Christ has offered for us, so that all the benefits of the new covenant can come to us including the forgiveness of our sins.
He says in verse 23 that it’s necessary for the heavenly things to be purified. But he doesn’t mean that heaven needs to be purified, but that we need to be purified if we’re to approach God who is in heaven. And the good news is that Christ has offered a better sacrifice for us. And, unlike the old covenant high priests, who only ever entered a man-made copy of heaven, Christ has entered heaven itself in order to appear before God on our behalf. And, unlike those old covenant high priests, who had to offer an animal sacrifice every year when they entered the Most Holy Place, the Lord Jesus has no need to offer himself again and again and again. On the contrary, he appeared on the earth once — and only once — to suffer and to die for us. And now, he’s gone into heaven; and one day, he will come out of heaven and he will appear on the earth again. And when he comes, it will not be to deal with our sin, because he’s already done that, once and for all. He’s already paid for our sins with his life. He’s already taken the blame for what we’ve done wrong. He’s already paid the ransom to satisfy God’s justice. And so, he’s already dealt with our sin for ever. And so, when he comes again, it will not be to deal with our sin, but to bring salvation to his people.
The writer has in mind what the old covenant high priest used to do on the Day of Atonement. The sacrificial animal was killed on the altar; and the high priest would take its blood and enter the Most Holy Place to sprinkle it on the atonement cover. And afterwards, he would reappear before the people to confirm: that God had indeed accepted the sacrifice in their place; and that he had spared them so that they could go on living and not die which is what they deserved. And Christ our Great High Priest sacrificed himself on the cross. And now he has gone into the true tabernacle. He’s gone into heaven where he is now interceding for us. And one day he will re-appear from out of heaven to confirm our salvation and to announce that we will live with God for ever.
Our life on earth is a life of waiting. It’s a life of waiting for Christ to return. And so, while God has placed us in the world and we’re to honour him here by the things we say and do, nevertheless we must also remind ourselves continually that there’s more than what we can see around us, because there are also unseen things. There is Christ our Great High Priest who is now unseen; and he’s in heaven which is unseen; and he’s standing before God who is unseen. There are unseen things which are more real than the things around us, because the things around us are temporary, whereas the unseen things are eternal. And we’re waiting for the day when those unseen things will be revealed; and our Great High Priest will re-appear from heaven and he’ll bring us right into the presence of God, where we will see him and worship him and live with him for ever. That’s our hope. That’s what we’re waiting for. And Christ has guaranteed it for us by establishing the new covenant with his blood to us the forgiveness of our sins and the hope of everlasting life with God.