Purified to Serve the Living God
Now even the first covenant had regulations of divine worship and the earthly sanctuary. 2 For there was a tabernacle prepared, the outer one, in which were the lampstand and the table and the sacred bread; this is called the holy place. 3 And behind the second veil, there was a tabernacle which is called the Holy of Holies, 4 having a golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, in which was a golden jar holding the manna, and Aaron's rod which budded, and the tables of the covenant. 5 And above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat; but of these things we cannot now speak in detail. 6 Now when these things have been thus prepared, the priests are continually entering the outer tabernacle, performing the divine worship, 7 but into the second only the high priest enters, once a year, not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the sins of the people committed in ignorance. 8 The Holy Spirit is signifying this, that the way into the holy place has not yet been disclosed, while the outer tabernacle is still standing, 9 which is a symbol for the present time. Accordingly both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make the worshiper perfect in conscience, 10 since they relate only to food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until a time of reformation. 11 But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; 12 and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. 13 For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled, sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?
This is Old and Strange and Foreign to Me
It's almost inevitable that people who live in the modern world of computers and jets and television and antibiotics will read these verses with a sense of tremendous foreignness. That is not my world, we feel, even if we don't say it. What should we do about that sense?
When you read about something old and strange and culturally foreign to your present world, you have three choices (at least) in how you can deal with the difference and the distance you feel from this oldness and strangeness:
1) You can say, "The world of this text is so old and so foreign and so strange—with its tents and altars and animal sacrifices and ceremonial defilements and washings—that they have no relevance for my life today at all. So I will ignore them and deal with more contemporary things."
2) Or you can say, "Well, the truths that really matter in life are not historical truths, but timeless truths above history, and so in every generation these truths get expressed in some way or another in the world. I will look for some of these timeless truths in these old strange days of priests and ritual and sacrifice and ceremonial defilement. Perhaps my life will be enriched in some way by connecting with the eternal realm through these old practices.
3) Or you can say, "I believe that God governs history and is progressively revealing himself to the world by the way he guides history from one period to the next. Yes, old periods of God's design in history are strange and foreign, but, no, they are not irrelevant. Each successive period helps interpret the next and sheds light on what God is doing in the present. And, yes, there are eternal truths that we can learn from old and strange periods of history, but, no, this is not all that God is doing. History is not just an unreal shadow of heaven. God himself comes into history and does things. And we cannot just stand back and try to see symbols of eternal truths; we have to become a part of what God is doing in history if we would be saved and live with him forever."
Why it is Relevant, Though Foreign to Us
Let me show you from these verses why I think option 3 is the way we should respond to the strangeness and foreignness of this text. Verses 1-7 set up what this writer wants us to see. They describe the old period of history and the way the people of God worshipped in it. Verse 1: there was an "earthly sanctuary." Verse 2: this sanctuary or tabernacle had an outer part, called "the holy place," with lampstand and table and bread. Verses 3-5: behind that was the Holy of Holies with an altar and chest with sacred relics and carved cherubim above the altar. Verse 6 describes the priests entering the outer tent continually, and verse 7 describes the high priest entering the Holy of Holies only once a year to make atonement for the people. In other words, in this early, strange, foreign period of history, the way to God was very limited. His presence was sealed off behind the outer tent. He could only be approached in atonement once a year, and only the high priest could go, and he had to go with blood, including blood for his own sins.
Now when we get to verse 8, the writer starts his interpretation of this old period of history with its strange, foreign ways. He says, "The Holy Spirit is signifying this, that the way into the holy place has not yet been disclosed, while the outer tabernacle is still standing, (9) which is a symbol for the present time." Here comes the tremendously important clue how he wants us to relate to this strange and distant period of history. He says that the outer tabernacle is symbolic of "the present time" (verse 9a).
In other words, the ritual of this tent and the way it stands between the worshipper and God's presence are characteristic of "the present time." Notice: he is not saying that this old, strange, foreign ritual is irrelevant. And he is not saying that history is unimportant and all that matters is finding eternal truths in the symbolism of it all. He says this tent and these furnishings and this priestly ritual have directly to do with time—with a period of history. He calls it, "the present time." This tent is "a symbol for the present time" (verse 9a).
"The Present Time"
But what is "the present time" that he has in mind? And what does it have to do with us in our present time?
Let's keep reading and listen to him explain what time he means and how the times were changing, even as he wrote. Verse 9b: "Accordingly both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make the worshiper perfect in conscience, 10 since they relate only to food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until a time of reformation." Here is another reference to time and the movement of God in history.
Let's compare the reference in verse 9a to the reference in verse 10b. In verse 9a he says that the outer tent with its furnishings and ministry, separating the people from the Holy of Holies and the presence of God was symbolic of "the present time." Then he said in verses 9b and 10 that all these external rituals that relate to food and drink and washings are valid only "until the time of reformation" (= "the setting straight", "the new order"). So the question is: when does that transition happen in history? When does "the present time," in verse 9, give way to "the reformation" or the "new order" in verse 10?
The whole point of this book of Hebrews is to say that the coming of Christ, the Son of God, into the world is the ending of "the present time" of the old, strange, foreign way of relating to God, and the beginning of "the reformation" where Christ himself replaces the high priest and the temple and the blood of the animals and the food and drink rituals. That's the point of the book of Hebrews.
The way to think about the old and strange and foreign is not to say it's irrelevant, or to say that it's just a shadow of eternal truths, but rather to say, that in that old period of history, under God's sovereign design, everything was pointing to a new period of history that began with Jesus, and in which we live. And the old period has much light to shed on the meaning of the new period.
Why did he call the old, strange, foreign period of history "this present time" if he lived after the death and resurrection of Jesus? The answer is given, I think, in Hebrews 8:13 which really introduces this whole section: "When He said [referring to God's voice in Jeremiah 31:31], 'A new covenant,' He has made the first obsolete. But whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear." Do you see where he sees himself? He sees himself in the time of transition from old to new. The old system of relating to God through ritual and sacrifice and priest and tabernacle "is becoming obsolete and is ready to disappear. And the new order, the "reformation" has been inaugurated in Christ and is replacing the old. Very soon the temple in Jerusalem would be utterly destroyed and the entire priestly, sacrificial system would be finished, to this day.
So you and I live in this new period, "the reformation," as he calls it. Now why is that important? Why is that relevant to us in our computerized, jet-speed age of antibiotics and secular solutions to everything?
How Can People with Stained Consciences Draw Near to God?
It's relevant because there's one thing that modern life and scientific progress and psychological therapies and medical discoveries have not made the slightest advance in solving. And that is, What is God's work in this "time of reformation" and this text all about? It is all about how people with stained consciences can draw near to God.
Isn't it remarkable that when we spend an evening isolated in front of our computer: addicted, as it were, to work or pornography or video games, the issue, at the end of it all, is not the wonders of technology, or science; the issue is: how can I come to God when I feel so dirty, and how can I come to my wife and children with transparent love, when my conscience is so defiled? (And if you're not into computers, pick your own sin—TV soaps, romance novels, stock market pages, spirit-numbing music, etc.).
Isn't it remarkable that the basic problems of life never change. The circumstances change, but the basic problems don't change. We are humans, and we have consciences that witness to our sinfulness with testimonies of real guilt. And we know that what keeps us away from God is not dirty hands or soiled clothes or distance from an altar or a priest. What keeps us from God is real sin echoing in a condemning conscience.
God Has Solved that Problem
Now that is why the new time period—where we live—is relevant. This is what the new period is about: God has done something in history—not in some timeless realm of ideas—that solves the deepest problem we have in the modern world. The old period—the old covenant—only pointed to the solution, but didn't solve the problem. Watch for the differences between the old "present time" and "the time of reformation" as you read verses 11-14.
But when Christ appeared [that's the inauguration of the "time of the reformation" and the ending of "the present time"] as a high priest of the good things to come [which have now indeed come through his death and resurrection], He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all [the true tabernacle in heaven], having obtained eternal redemption [not a yearly one]. For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled, sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh [that is, ceremonial cleansing, but not real moral, spiritual cleansing], how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?
In the old period of history, the high priest went into the Holy of Holies once a year, taking the blood of animals (verse 7). Why did he have to do that? Because the blood stood for the death of an animal and the death was in the place of the death of the priest and the people. God counted the blood of the animal as sufficient for cleansing the flesh, the ceremonial uncleanness.
But what about the guilty conscience of the priest and the people? No animal blood could cleanse that. They knew it (see Isaiah 53 and Psalm 51). And we know it. So in "the time of reformation" a new high priest comes—Jesus the Son of God—with a better sacrifice, the sacrifice of himself. Verse 14 says that the whole Trinity—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—were involved. "Through the eternal Spirit [the Holy Spirit] he offered himself [the Son] without blemish to God [the Father]." The result is that all the sins of his people in the Old Covenant were covered by the blood of Jesus. The animal sacrifices foreshadowed the final sacrifice of God's Son, and the death of the Son reaches back to cover all the sins of God's people in the old time period, and forward to cover all the sins of God's people in the new time period.
The Problem is the Same for Ancient People and Modern People
So here we are in the modern age, the age of science, space travel—E-mail, heart transplants, instant replays, beepers, 911—and our problem is fundamentally the same as always: our consciences condemn us and make us feel unacceptable to God. We are alienated from God. We don't feel good enough to come to him. And no matter how distorted our consciences are, that much is true: we are not good enough to come to him.
We can cut ourselves, or throw our children in the sacred river, or give a million dollars to the United Way, or serve in a soup kitchen at Thanksgiving, or a hundred forms of penance and self-injury, and the result will be the same: the stain remains and death terrifies. We know that our conscience is defiled—not with external things like touching a corpse, a dirty diaper, or a piece of pork. Jesus said it is what comes out of a man that defiles, not what goes in (Mark 7:15-23). We are defiled by attitudes like pride and self-pity and bitterness and lust and envy and jealousy and covetousness and apathy and fear. Verse 14 says that these are "dead works"—that is, they have no spiritual life in them. They don't come from new life; they come from death and they lead to death. That is why they make us feel hopeless in our consciences.
The Only Answer
The only answer in this modern age, as in every other age is the blood of Christ. When your conscience rises up and condemns you, where will you turn? Hebrew 9:14 gives you the answer: turn to Christ. Turn to the blood of Christ. Turn to the only cleansing agent in the universe that can give you relief in life and peace in death.
How much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?
I urge you this morning, turn to Christ, turn right now to Christ and receive the free gift that he bought at infinite price: the gift of perfect forgiveness and cleansing.
©2013 Desiring God Foundation. Used by Permission.
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in its entirety or in unaltered excerpts, as long as you do not charge a fee. For Internet posting, please use only unaltered excerpts (not the content in its entirety) and provide a hyperlink to this page. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Desiring God.
Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By John Piper. ©2013 Desiring God Foundation. Website: desiringGod.org