Hebrews 9:1-28

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With seeming reference to the law covenant (literally, “the first”), the writer of Hebrews referred to regulations set forth in the law for sacred service and the “worldly” or mundane holy place or sanctuary. The law outlined the sacrificial arrangements and the various priestly and levitical duties to be performed at the sanctuary. Of human construction and from earthly materials, the tent or tabernacle is termed “worldly” or “mundane.” It was of this world or the earthly or human realm. (9:1; see the Notes section.)

In relation to the entire tabernacle, the “first” tent designates the first compartment, which was called the “Holy.” It contained a lampstand, a table, and the bread of presentation. The lampstand, consisting of pure beaten gold, had a central shaft from each side of which three branches extended. At the top of the central shaft and each of the branches there were lamps in which olive oil was burned for illumination. (Exodus 25:31-37; 27:20, 21; 37:17-23) The table, made of acacia wood and plated with gold, measured two cubits in length, one cubit in width, and a cubit and a half in height. With a cubit being approximately 18 inches (c. 46 centimeters), the table had a height of about 27 inches (c. 69 centimeters). (Exodus 25:23, 24; 37:10, 11) On each Sabbath, two stacks of six freshly baked loaves were placed on the table. These loaves were the “bread of presentation.” (Leviticus 24:5-8) In nearly all extant manuscripts, the most prominent furnishing in the Holy, the altar of incense, is not mentioned. (9:2; see the Notes section.)

A curtain blocked the view from the courtyard into the Holy. (Exodus 26:36) The “Holy of Holies” or the “Most Holy” was situated behind the second curtain, which served to separate the Holy from the Most Holy. (Exodus 26:31-33) In his description, the writer of Hebrews refers to the Most Holy as a “tent,” probably because it formed a separate compartment, the most sacred inner portion of the tabernacle. (9:3)

In the extant Septuagint text, the altar for burning incense is called thysiastérion (altar) followed by the genitive form of the word meaning “incense” (thymíama). (Exodus 30:1) In 2 Chronicles 26:19 and Ezekiel 8:11, the censer or pan used for burning incense is called thymiatérion. Nearly all extant Greek manuscripts contain the same word in Hebrews 9:4, where the items located in the Most Holy are listed. In connection with the Most Holy, elsewhere in the Scriptures no mention is made about a specific golden censer, and so numerous translators have rendered the Greek term to designate the altar of incense. (CEV, NAB, NCV, NIV, NJB, NRSV, REB) This poses a problem, for the altar of incense was in the Holy, not in the Most Holy. One proposed reconciliation for the difference is to regard the altar of burnt offering (though in the courtyard) as belonging to the Holy, and the altar of incense as belonging to the Most Holy. (9:4; see the Notes section.)

The ark of the covenant, a chest made of acacia wood and with its interior and exterior overlaid with gold, was the most prominent item in the Most Holy. It contained the two stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written, a gold jar in which manna was preserved, and Aaron’s rod that had budded overnight and produced blossoms and ripe almonds. The miracle involving Aaron’s rod occurred after the rebellion of Korah and served to establish that Aaron and his house had been divinely chosen to serve as priests. (9:4; Numbers 17:1-10)

According to the Greek text of Exodus 16:33 the jar containing the manna was to be placed “before God [YHWH, Hebrew text],” and Numbers 17:10(25) indicates that Aaron’s rod was to be deposited “before the testimonies.” These instructions are commonly understood to mean that both items were to be near the ark, especially since 1 Kings 8:9 and 2 Chronicles 5:10 say that there were no items other than the two tablets in the ark. The words of 1 Kings 8:9 and 2 Chronicles 5:10, however, would not preclude that other items were inside the ark at a much earlier time, and the expressions “before God” and “before the testimonies” are not specific enough to establish that these items could never have been placed inside the ark.

The Greek word hilastérion here designates the cover for the ark and may be understood to denote the place of propitiation or atonement. This is because on the Day of Atonement, the high priest sprinkled the blood of the bull and the goat on and before the cover of the ark to make atonement for sins. Above the ark itself, or on its cover, were two glorious cherubs made from gold. These particular gold cherubs, with the exception of their having wings, are not described anywhere in the Scriptures. They were mere representations of heavenly cherubs. They were not objects for veneration and were never to be seen by Israelites other than the high priest. With their wings outstretched and facing each other, the cherubs overshadowed the cover of the ark. (9:5; Leviticus 16:11-16)

According to the writer of Hebrews, it was then not the time to speak in detail about the features of the tabernacle. Although the arrangement for worship that existed under the law covenant possessed a glory or grandeur, the arrangement for worship centering in Jesus Christ and what his death accomplished, eclipses this splendor. Therefore, for the Hebrew believers, their focus should have been the grander reality that God had brought into being through his Son. (9:5)

With apparent reference to the tabernacle and its furnishings, the writer of Hebrews mentioned that “thus these [things] had been prepared.” To render their sacred service, the priests entered the “first tent” (the Holy) at all times or every day. (9:6) Into the “second [tent]” (the Most Holy), however, only the high priest entered but once each year (on the Day of Atonement), never doing so without the blood of offerings for himself and for the unintentional failings of the people. (9:7; Leviticus 16:2-34)

The Most Holy represented heaven itself, God’s place of dwelling. Its being entered only by the high priest on the annual Day of Atonement proved to be revelatory. The disclosure through the operation of God’s spirit made it clear that, as long as the “first tent” was standing (literally, “having standing”), the way into the heavenly holy place had not yet been manifested. (9:8)

It appears that the Greek expression for “having standing” here does not refer merely to the physical existence of the tabernacle and, later, of the temple. Although the daily priestly services continued after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension to heaven, the temple ceased to have the standing or the exclusive position as the place for divinely approved worship. (9:8; compare John 4:21-24.)

Under the law with its prescribed priestly services, the Israelites would not have thought in terms of having intimate personal approach to God at all times and in every respect. They were debarred from even entering the sanctuary, let alone the Most Holy that represented God’s presence. Therefore, free approach to his very presence would have been inconceivable to them. (9:8)

The “first tent” or the sanctuary served as a parabolic teaching for the time when the greater reality would be revealed. This came to pass when Jesus Christ ministered, surrendered his life, and returned to his Father after being raised from the dead. Accordingly, the writer of Hebrews spoke of the “first tent” as being a “parable” or likeness for the then-present time, revealing significant aspects that could not have been understood before the Son of God completed his earthly ministry. The “gifts” (offerings made to express gratitude) and “sacrifices” for sins were part of the parabolic teaching, revealing that a person could not thereby gain a fully approved standing before God, with a completely free approach to him. The individual engaging in sacred service by presenting his offerings at the temple could not thereby “perfect” his conscience, for animal sacrifices could not effect an inner cleansing. (9:9)

In relation to sanctuary services, the regulations of the law dealt with ceremonial cleanness and not the purification of the conscience or the inmost self of the worshiper. So the writer of Hebrews, in relation to gifts and sacrifices, mentioned that these only pertained to “foods and drinks and various washings [baptisms].” The law outlined who could eat particular portions of an offering and what could or could not be eaten. (Leviticus 7:1-6, 11-36; 11:2-47; Deuteronomy 14:3-21) “Drinks” could include the regulations for drink offerings and the prohibitions about drinking wine or other alcoholic drinks applying to priests and Nazarites. (Leviticus 10:9; Numbers 6:3) The baptisms or washings may relate to what the priests had to do in preparation for sacrificial services and the various regulations for washing required for incurring ceremonial uncleanness. (9:10; Leviticus 11:24-40; 13:5, 6, 34, 58; 14:8; 15:4-30; 16:4; 17:15; 22:4-6; Numbers 19:2-21)

Regulations pertaining to priestly services and the required cleanness for the priests and the people related to the “flesh” or the externals of a ceremonial nature, remaining in effect until the time came for a new arrangement (literally, a time of “straightening out,” “improvement,” or “correction”). This new arrangement would effect changes that would go far beyond ceremonial purity, thus straightening out, improving, or correcting what the law could not accomplish. (9:10)

“When Christ came as high priest of the good things” that believers have experienced, he passed through a “tent” greater and “more perfect” or complete than the tabernacle. Human hands did not construct this “tent,” for it was heavenly and so no part of the earthly creation. Being the heavenly holy place where God is present in person, it is indeed a far greater and truly perfect “tent.” The “good things” Jesus Christ’s coming as high priest effected included redemption from the condemnation of sin, forgiveness of transgressions, the cleansing of consciences, and reconciliation with his Father. (9:11; see the Notes section.)

God’s Son, in his capacity as high priest, did not enter the holy place (literally, “the holies”) or the highest heaven with the “blood of goats and calves [young bulls]” as did the Aaronic high priest when annually entering the Most Holy of the sanctuary on the Day of Atonement. The plural “goats and calves” is indicative of the repeated offerings the law covenant required, for the high priest obtained blood from only one bull that he offered for himself and his house or family and from only one goat that he sacrificed for the people on the Day of Atonement. (Leviticus 16:11-17) Jesus Christ entered the dwelling place of his Father (the holiest location) only once and with his own blood, presenting himself as the one whose blood had been shed in the course of the crucifixion process. So he came with the value of his own precious blood, having obtained eternal redemption or liberation from the condemnation of sin for all who accept his sacrifice for them. (9:12)

The blood of goats and bulls, and the water of cleansing that included the ashes of a red heifer and which was sprinkled on an “unclean” or ceremonially defiled person, effected sanctification or purification in relation to the flesh. Those who were ceremonially defiled as to their flesh or body thus came to be ceremonially clean. (9:13) Under the law covenant, the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of the heifer in the water of cleansing had efficacy in relation to ceremonial purity. Accordingly, a far greater purification would result from the priceless blood of Jesus Christ. He offered himself “through the eternal spirit” to God, doing so as a person without blemish or completely free from the stain of sin. (9:14)

The expression “eternal spirit” may designate the “holy spirit,” which is actually the reading found in a number of manuscripts (including a correction in the fourth-century Codex Sinaiticus). This could mean that Jesus Christ willingly responded to the leading of God’s spirit when dying for the human family. Another possibility is that the “eternal spirit” is Jesus’ own spirit. The spirit of a man identifies him for who he truly is in his inmost self. So the “eternal spirit” of Christ could denote who he is in his very being, the unique Son of God who is always in perfect oneness with his Father. He was with his Father from before the universe began and so before the ages. His spirit, therefore, is eternal and never changes from being in full harmony with God’s will and purpose. (9:14)

With his precious blood, Jesus Christ made possible a cleansing of the consciences “from the dead works” of all who accept his sacrifice for them. Believers who are thus purified are able to serve the “living God” acceptably, for they are no longer defiled by works that are out of harmony with faith in God and love for him and for fellow humans. (9:14; see the Notes section.)

According to Exodus 24:3-8, the law covenant was put into effect on the basis of animal sacrifices. In his capacity as mediator, Moses splashed half of the blood of the sacrificial victims on the altar. Then, after reading the law that had been divinely revealed to him and which he had recorded, Moses sprinkled blood from the sacrificial victims on the people. The new covenant, on the other hand, came into being on the basis of the far superior sacrifice of the Son of God. He is, therefore, mediator of the new and far better covenant. In the Greek text, “new covenant” precedes “mediator,” with the emphasis being on the new covenant (not on mediator). The far superior sacrifice also means a far better covenant, a new covenant. On the basis of his sacrificial death (literally, “because a death had taken place”), the Hebrew believers had been “redeemed” or liberated from the transgressions committed under the “first covenant,” that is, the law covenant. They had been forgiven of all their failures to live up to the law’s requirements. As forgiven called ones, or persons who had been invited to become part of God’s family of approved children on the basis of acceptance of Christ’s sacrifice for them, believers receive the promise of “the eternal inheritance.” This inheritance is eternal, for it can never be lost or destroyed. The fulfillment of the promise respecting this inheritance will mean sharing with Christ in his being the heir of everything that his Father has granted him. Believers will enjoy this inheritance in the sinless state as members of God’s family. (9:15)

The meaning of the principle that the writer of Hebrews next set forth depends on the significance of the Greek word diathéke. Up to this point, diathéke (the term found in the Septuagint as the rendering for the Hebrew word beríth) designated a “covenant” or “agreement.” Translators commonly depart from this meaning in the next two verses, rendering diathéke as “will” or “testament” according to the significance current in Hellenistic times. (9:16, 17) “Where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive.” (NRSV) “Now where there is a testament it is necessary for the death of the testator to be established; for a testament takes effect only when a death has occurred: it has no force while the testator is still alive.” (REB)

One must consider, however, that the words were directed to Hebrew believers and, based on ancient tradition, may have been originally written in Hebrew. Therefore, it appears preferable to regard diathéke according to its significance in the Septuagint when appearing as a rendering for the Hebrew word beríth, meaning “covenant,” “agreement,” “compact,” or “alliance.” The principle about a covenant might then be expressed literally as follows: “For where [there is] a covenant, [it is] necessary to present [phéro] the death of the covenant-validating victim [diatheménou, from diatíthemi], for a covenant is established over dead [victims], since it is not in force when the covenant-validating victim [diathémenos, from diatíthemi] is living.” (9:16, 17)

The Greek word phéro basically means “carry” or “bear” and can also signify “ordain,” “decree,” “put,” “bring,” “produce,” or “establish.” So it could relate to the proof that the covenant-validating sacrifice had been brought forth or presented. The participial forms of the Greek word diatíthemi in verses 16 and 17 are not found in the Septuagint, but the Septuagint does use forms of this verb when referring to making a covenant. (Genesis 9:17; 15:18; 21:27, 32; 26:28; 31:44; Exodus 24:8) In the context of the law covenant and the new covenant, validation involved sacrifice. So there is a basis for considering the participial forms of diatíthemi to designate the covenant-validating victim. While the covenant-validating victim continued to live, covenants that required sacrifices for validation would not have been in force. The death of the covenant-validating victim sealed the covenant, removing any possibility of change in the conditions to which the parties in the covenant had bound themselves. (9:16, 17)

An application to the covenant-validating victim fits better with the further development of the subject, for the death of a testator does not require the shedding of blood. The sentence that started in verse 17 continues with the thought that, in this way (literally, “in which”), the “first [covenant],” or the law covenant, was not “inaugurated without blood.” (9:18) This was the blood of sacrificial victims. After Moses made known to all the people “every commandment according to the law,” he took “the blood of calves [young bulls] and of goats, along with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled the book and all the people, saying [Exodus 24:8], ‘This [is] the blood of the covenant which God enjoined on you.’” (9:19, 20; see the Notes section.)

Moses probably mixed the blood with water and used the scarlet wool and hyssop (likely majoram, a plant of the mint family that has hairy branches and thick hairy leaves) to sprinkle the people and the scroll containing the divine commands he had written. The Exodus account makes no mention of sprinkling the book but indicates that half of the blood was splashed on the altar, suggesting that the writer of Hebrews drew on information that is not preserved in the extant Scriptures. (9:19)

“The blood of the covenant,” or the blood of the sacrificed animals, validated the covenant or put it in force. For the Israelites, this meant that they were obligated to conduct themselves in harmony with the law. (9:20)

Likewise with the blood from sacrificed animals, Moses splashed the tent or tabernacle and also the utensils used for sanctuary service, thereby setting aside everything thus sprinkled as cleansed for sacred use and not stained by the hands of sinners. The blood was regarded as the agent of purification from defilement. As the writer of Hebrews commented, “Nearly everything is cleansed by blood according to the law, and no forgiveness occurs without the pouring out of blood.” Additionally, water was an agent for cleansing, as also was the specially prepared water of cleansing that contained the ashes of a red heifer. Blood not being the exclusive substance for purifying purposes, the writer of Hebrews said that, in keeping with the regulations set forth in the law, “nearly” everything was cleansed by blood. Without the pouring out of blood for sacrificial purposes, no forgiveness of sins occurs. (9:21, 22; compare Leviticus 8:15, 19.)

The tabernacle with its furnishings represented heavenly realities, and it and its associated features are called hypódeigma, meaning “model,” “pattern,” or “sketch.” These representations of heavenly realities needed to be purified by reason of their contact with sinful humans, and the blood from sacrificial animals served as the cleansing agent. To effect the purification of the far grander heavenly realities required something exceedingly superior to the blood of sacrificed animals. This does not mean that the heavenly realm proved to be in a state of defilement. Sin, however, had alienated humans from the heavenly realm, which meant that they could not have an unhindered approach to God. So the purification of the heavenly realities involved ending the state of alienation and opening up to humans the freedom to make an acceptable approach. This necessitated a superior sacrifice, one that could indeed make it possible for humans to be forgiven of their sins. (9:23)

Jesus Christ provided the superior sacrifice when he surrendered his life. With the value of this sacrifice, he did not enter a humanly constructed sanctuary (literally, the plural of “holy,” probably because the tabernacle consisted of the Holy and the Most Holy). This sanctuary was but a copy of the “true one” (literally, “true ones” in keeping with the plural “holy [places]” designating the copy or representation). God is in the holiest place, and there, “in heaven,” Christ appeared “for us” in God’s presence (literally, “to the face of God”). Believers are the ones who benefit from Christ’s sacrifice, and so the writer of Hebrews spoke of Christ’s appearing as having been “for us,” including himself and the Hebrews to whom he wrote. They benefit from being forgiven of their sins and constituted children in God’s beloved family. (9:24)

Unlike the Aaronic high priest who entered the Most Holy of a mere copy or representation from year to year on the Day of Atonement with the blood of animals (not with his own blood), Christ entered the heavenly sanctuary for the purpose of presenting the value of his sacrifice once for all time and not to offer himself often. (9:25)

A repeated offering of himself would have necessitated his being submitted to suffering “many times from the founding of the world,” or again and again from the very beginning when sin first made its entrance among humans. Instead, Jesus Christ appeared at “the end of the ages” to remove sin through his sacrifice. When he came to the earth, a new era dawned, opening up to humans everywhere the opportunity to become approved children of his Father. For this reason, Christ’s appearance is mentioned as taking place at the conclusion of the ages. His one sacrifice was sufficient to effect the cleansing from past, present, and future sins in the case of all those who accepted his sacrifice for them. (9:26)

The writer of Hebrews next introduced a general principle. It is destined for humans to die once, and their death is to be followed by judgment. This judgment can have either a favorable or an unfavorable outcome. (9:27; John 5:28, 29; Romans 2:12-16; 2 Corinthians 5:10)

Likewise, Christ offered himself once to bear the sins of many. Humans are destined to die because of sin, but Christ died as a sin bearer for many sinners. His death proved to be a contrasting parallel. The second time he appears he will be coming “apart from sin,” or not as a sin bearer, but as the glorified Son of God to whom his Father granted all authority in heaven and on earth. This second appearance will result in salvation for all believers who are eagerly waiting for his return. Their eager waiting would be apparent from their exemplary conduct and their devotion to the furtherance of Christ’s interests. In their case, final “salvation” will mean being united with Christ and coming to enjoy all the privileges and blessings to be extended to God’s approved children as persons completely liberated from sin. (9:28; see the Notes section.)

Notes:

According to the reading of numerous manuscripts, the opening words of verse 1 are, “Was having indeed, therefore, also [kaí] the first.” Other manuscripts do not include the word kaí, meaning “also” in this context. A number of manuscripts add “tent” after “first,” which could refer to the first tabernacle or to the first compartment of the tabernacle (the Holy where daily priestly services were performed). While many translators have added “covenant” after “first,” Young’s Literal Translation follows the reading of manuscripts that read “first tent.” “It had, indeed, then (even the first tabernacle) ordinances of service, also a worldly sanctuary.”

In verse 2, fourth-century Codex Vaticanus contains the expression commonly rendered “golden altar of incense,” which expression can also refer to a “golden censer,” but this manuscript does not include these words in verse 4 (as do all other extant Greek manuscripts and which manuscripts do not include the words in verse 2). Therefore, the common view is that the reading of Codex Vaticanus is a scribal correction, eliminating the problem of a reference to the altar of incense as having been in the Most Holy (instead of where it actually was, in the Holy).

The extant Hebrew text of Exodus 16:33, including that of the Dead Sea Scrolls, does not say that the jar for the manna was gold, as does the writer of Hebrews (verse 4). The Septuagint, however, does say “gold jar.”

According to fourth-century Codex Sinaiticus and numerous other manuscripts, the reference in verse 11 is to future “good things,” which would include everything believers will come to enjoy upon being united with Christ, entering the “rest” that his Father has promised.

In verse 14, instead of “our conscience,” many manuscripts read “your conscience.” At the end of the verse, a number of manuscripts add “and true” after “living.”

The words “and of goats” (in verse 19) are missing in numerous manuscripts, including P46 (c. 200 CE).

The quotation from Exodus 24:8 in verse 20 differs from the extant text of the Septuagint, which reads, “Look! The blood of the covenant which the Lord made with you regarding all these words.”

A number of manuscripts (in verse 28), including fifth-century Codex Alexandrinus, read “salvation through faith.”