I once saw an advertisement for a particular type of pillow that read, “The next best thing to a clear conscience.” In many ways, the same could be said of the old covenant compared to the new covenant. It could temporarily soothe the conscience but could never cleanse it.
This matter of a clear conscience is a major theme in the passage before us. It is a major theme of the new covenant. The new covenant is better than the old covenant because it is able to deliver a clear conscience. The former covenant had the ability to gloriously convict the conscience but the new covenant has the glorious and gracious ability to cleanse the conscience. This is the theme of the passage before us.
Previously, we looked the new covenant under the heading, “The New is Better.” We saw that, although the former covenant had a divine purpose (and, in fact, was perfectly suited to this purpose), it nevertheless could never produce the life that its law demanded. Only the new covenant, introduced by Jesus on the night He was betrayed (Matthew 26:28) could provide such power. And so, as the Lord poured the wine into the cups of the disciples that evening, He was actually prophesying the inauguration of the new wine of His gospel. Since then, the world has never been the same. It has been going from glory to glory, and greater glory is yet to come.
In the passage before us, the writer develops further the thought of the new being better, but now he contrasts former glory with greater glory under the new covenant. The former covenant was glorious; the new covenant has greater glory. We will examine this greater glory under four broad headings and under the fourth will look at some practical results of gratefully appreciating this more glorious covenant.
The Glorious Heritage
The writer continues to expound the contrasts between the two covenants and here describes the original place where the former covenant was first carried out. He describes the sanctuary and later will describe the sacrifice.
Then indeed, even the first covenant had ordinances of divine service and the earthly sanctuary. For a tabernacle was prepared: the first part, in which was the lampstand, the table, and the showbread, which is called the sanctuary; and behind the second veil, the part of the tabernacle which is called the Holiest of All, which had the golden censer and the ark of the covenant overlaid on all sides with gold, in which were the golden pot that had the manna, Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tablets of the covenant; and above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these things we cannot now speak in detail.
At this point, it may be helpful to clarify that the “vanishing” of the “obsolete” covenant (8:13) is here clearly defined as the sacrificial system, under which the plan of God’s redemption was administered. That is, it was not the old covenant in its entirety that was abolished but rather the sanctuary and sacrifices that characterised that covenant. The law of God has been written on our hearts since God’s law concerning sacrifices have been fulfilled. Our hearts our full because our hands are empty.
The writer now describes the place at which the old covenant redemptive system was operative: the tabernacle. For reasons that I will touch on later, the writer refers to the original tabernacle as described from Exodus 25 rather referring to the existing temple of their day.
He uses the word “even.” He may be contrasting the current structure and worship at the temple with the tabernacle, or he may be alluding to the reality that under the new covenant we have a place: the church. At any rate, this is a theme that is a thread throughout this book and that will be driven home in chapter 10.
He describes the tabernacle as consisting of two parts. The first part is symbolic of the former covenant while the second part symbolises the new covenant. Its entirety pointed to Christ. As we study this structure, the foundation is being laid to help us to understand the significance of the two covenants. It will help us to understand why the old had to give way to the new.
The first part of the “tent” included the “lampstand” and the “table,” on which was the “showbread.” We see here glimpses of Jesus Christ, who is the Light of the world and the Bread of life.
The second part, “the Holiest of All” (or “Most Holy Place”) was separated from the first by the “veil.” We are told that here was the “golden censer.” In the original instructions, this was actually placed before the veil, and so perhaps the better translation would be the golden censor was “by” it. This speaks of Jesus praying, interceding for His people. The Most Holy Place housed “the “ark of the covenant,” which was “overlaid on all sides with gold.” Jesus is the meeting place between man and God. He is there on the throne of God.
Inside the ark were the “golden pot that had the manna,” “Aaron’s rod that budded,” and “the tablets of the covenant.” Jesus feeds His people and He authoritatively leads them to obey Him.
Next, he describes the glorious scene as the golden ark was covered with the outstretched wings of “the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat.” Jesus is our atonement thus reconciling God and man.
The writer would love to dwell on this symbolism but he must hasten to his main point. Though the tabernacle all pointed to Christ, he wants us to focus on salvation in the Saviour whom this structure foreshadowed.
A Glorious Former Covenant
Why does the writer give such a detailed description? I think he intends to remind his readers of the glory of the tabernacle. He desires to impress upon his readers that the old covenant was housed in glory. In other words, though the new covenant is more glorious—a far more glorious administration of God’s gracious redemption—nevertheless the former covenant did have glory (2 Corinthians 3:7–18). Westcott observes,“He seems indeed to linger over the sacred treasures of the past … there was, he says, something majestic and attractive in the Mosaic ordinances of worship.”1
These believers, while letting go of the old covenant, nevertheless needed to appreciate the glorious heritage that it was. They were to avoid what C. S. Lewis famously called, “chronological snobbery.”
In his attempt to show the greater glory of the new covenant over the glory of the now former covenant, the author wants to be careful to not come across as denigrating the Mosaic covenant. In other words, he does not want to argue too much. He does not build up the one covenant by tearing down the other. This is wise and such wisdom is needed for a church that is reforming.
Corrected but Appreciative
Many of us have been graced to have been “corrected” concerning former erroneous beliefs. We have quite literally undergone times of reformation (see v. 10). We have been blessed to have some important doctrinal and practical issues straightened out. This has no doubt been true at BBC both as individuals as well corporately.
We are grateful that the Lord has opened our eyes to a clearer understanding, for instance, of the doctrines of grace, of ecclesiology, of bibliology and of eschatology. Yet we must not despise our spiritual heritage, thereby throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Let me mention some specific examples from our church context.
At one time BBC held erroneously to the idea that the King James Version was the only God-approved English translation of the Bible. The arguments were largely based on a correct appreciation of the biblical doctrine of inspiration and authority of Scripture. The problem was that we incorrectly applied these convictions. We were wrong. And we came to see this. Yet it would be a shame if we failed to appreciate the stand that this church took in defending the truth that God’s Word is inspired.
I am so grateful that the heritage of a strong conviction concerning the authority and sufficiency of Scripture laid a foundation for where we are today. In fact, I would argue that this strong heritage is why we have been able to reform in our understanding of Scripture. It has enabled us to take Scripture seriously; seriously enough to change as we have become convinced by God’s Word.
Some in the church were raised in a “fundamentalist” ethos in which standards of conduct were preached and expected. Some of this was no doubt wrongheaded—perhaps even legalistic. Yet I so appreciate the concern for holy living that lay behind much of this. Such a heritage is to be appreciated. Many “sophisticated” and “cool” reformed churches need to appreciate this glorious heritage.
Eschatology was a huge shift for us as a church. We were wrong in our dispensational premillennialism. But thank God for the past 150 years of dispensationalists who have led the charge in evangelism and in world missions. Thank God for the dispensationalists who fought long and hard for the orthodox doctrine of the second coming of Jesus Christ. We dare not despise that helpful heritage!
Doctrines of Grace
A final example is the doctrines of grace. Many have commented that when someone becomes convinced of the doctrines of grace they should be relegated to the “cage stage.” That is, they should be kept in a cage and away from theological debate until they mellow! Much damage has been done by some of those who have arrogantly slammed their more Arminian background. Yet honesty demands us to recognise that much good has come from those who have rejected the doctrines of grace. We would be wise to appreciate that God has done great things through them. If you don’t believe that, read church history. Without the names of men like John and Charles Wesley and D. L. Moody, the progress of the church would not have been as glorious. In fact, our hymnody would be the poorer without many such believers. What I am saying is that the good of our heritage should not be blotted out simply because we have come to appreciate a glorious reforming of our understanding. In other words, as my dad told me when I was a kid, you don’t need to tear down to be built up.
I was recently ministering alongside a wonderful older pastor, who is firm in his convictions regarding the doctrines of grace. When he was asked at one point to share his testimony to a room full of Reformed Christians, he said,“I went to an Arminian church, responded to an Arminian altar call at the end of an Arminian service and I believe that I was gloriously saved.”
This is one reason that the writer refers to the tabernacle rather than to the temple. The former was commanded by God while the latter was permitted by Him. But the first, more rustic and less sophisticated structure had more glory than the politicised temple that was standing in Jesus’ day.
So, back to the passage: These opening verses tell us of God’s glorious construction of the tabernacle. But why do we need to know this?
A Glorious Hindrance
In vv. 6–10, the writer moves from speaking of the tabernacle structure to the priestly ministry in the tabernacle.
These preparations having thus been made, the priests go regularly into the first section, performing their ritual duties, but into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people. By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing (which is symbolic for the present age). According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation.
Here the writer reveals that the two compartments typified God’s two covenants. “The first part of the tabernacle” (v. 6) represented the first covenant. Whilethat covenant still had “status,” that is, while it was “still standing” (v. 8) as God’s covenantal requirement, the people through the priests could experience external cleansing. This occurred by their offering of gifts and sacrifices and by their ceremonial observance of the various laws concerning food, drinkand washings.
But even here the people had no access to God, for they could only be represented by priests. They could actually only get as far as the courtyard. They were barred from the presence of God. They were hindered—by their sinfulness—fromGod. Because they had a guilty conscience (v. 9) they experienced a glorious hindrance. As a matter of fact, the priests were also given limited access.
In v. 7 the writer reveals that “into the second part the high priest went alone once a year.” This, of course, occurred on the Day of Atonement (see Leviticus 16).
On the tenth day of the seventh month, the highpriest would lay aside his “royal” robes and enter the Most Holy Place dressed in a white tunic tied together with a white sash, his head bound in a white turban.
He would enter with the blood of a bull for his own sin and then with the blood of a goat for the sin of the people. But note that not only was such access beyond the veil limited to one, the offering was also limited in its effect. Such sacrifices could only atone for “sins committed in ignorance.” There was both limited access and limited efficacy.
In fact, not even the high priest could experience the presence of God. By the sacrificial system, not even the high priest could fully experience reconciliation and relationship with God. With only the blood of bulls and goats, there could be no true objective peace with God or subjective experience of the peace of God. The glory of God was too much for the guilt of the conscience (v.9). It is our guilty conscience that is the ground for our need of the new covenant. The first covenant—externalritual—can do nothing to take away our guilt. In fact, it only exacerbates it.
We should note that this was a glorious hindrance produced by the glory of God.As we came to appreciate in our studies in Exodus and Leviticus, the veil served as a warning that God is dangerous. For one to enter into His presence uninvited and unprepared was to invite death. No man can look at God and live. This hindrance served, under the old covenant, as a means to highlight the seriousness of our sinful condition and therefore our need for God’s gracious redemption. The glory of the gospel, however, enables us to do so through God’s ultimate revelation of Himself: the Lord Jesus Christ (1:1–2).
This glorious hindrance highlights our guilt.We read that, even on the Day of Atonement (the picture here), even though the highpriestexperienced atonement, and even though he secured atonement for the nation, the people were still burdened with a guilty conscience. We are told that this was purposefully “symbolic for the present time” (v. 9). In other words, God designed this glorious hindrance to increase the sense of guilt under “the present time” of the former covenant. This, in fact, was an act of mercy and grace.
Until we properly sense the guilt of our sins, we will not see the need for the Saviour. If the people who went to the tabernacle could have left with a sense that their offerings had secured their atonement and redemption they would have only been self-deceived. And so God designed the tabernacle and the Day of Atonement as the main features of the first covenant, to externally cleanse sinners while ensuring that their consciences remained burdened. Though at first blush this may seem harsh, it is in fact gracious. God wanted far more than external religion; He desired far more than mere external cleansing. Rather, He desired to cleanse the conscience so as to secure communion with His people. This is why God sent His Son into the world.
A Symbolic Section
The writer is saying in v. 8 that, until a better sacrifice was made, until a better “wineskin” was introduced by God, the old covenant could do nothing for the guilt-ridden conscience. You see, the second part of the tabernacle represented the new covenant. And what hinders, what serves as a barrier to being completely justified by God, is our guilty conscience. We need a way to get beyond the veil, and that way is the Lord Jesus Christ. That is why, when He died, the veil was torn in two from top to bottom (Matthew 27:51).
A Burdened Conscience
A guilty conscience is a terrible weight to carry. So, how does one obtain a clear, guilt-free conscience?
Conscience is simply “self-knowledge.” We are born with this self-knowledge informed by the law of God written on the heart. When we violate His standard, we know it. We can ignore it, and run the risk of searing it, or we can confess we are wrong and seek God’s mercy. But this mercy can only be found in Christ, not in external religion. The promise here is that though “our conscience tells us what we must think of ourselves … the blood of Christ tells us what God thinks of us in Christ.”2Thank God for the new covenant!
God really does want you, initially, to feel the burden of a guilty conscience. There is no hope apart from this. You have to know you have a disease if you will seek its cure.
We might put it this way: You have to come to the end of yourself if you will be saved, if you will experience the good news of what God has done for sinners in Christ Jesus. The problem with so many is that they are far too healthy. Jesus did not come as the physician for the healthy but rather for those who know they are sick—terminally so.
When you have done all that you can and yet still carry the burden of guilt, then you are ready to come to the Saviour and to “cast all your care upon Him” (1 Peter 5:7). This was the glory of the old covenant: It increased the weight of guilt until the sinner begged God to remove it—once for all. And yes, Old Testament believers did experience this (see Psalm 32; 51; etc.). By God’s grace, they realised that it was not the blood of lambs that could cleanse their guilty consciences but rather only the blood of the Lamb of God, slain before the foundation of the world (Revelation 13:8), who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29).
When Paul wrote to the Galatians, he argued this very point when he concluded that the law (the old covenant structures) was our “tutor to bring us to Christ” (3:24). He tells us that “the Scripture has confined all under sin” (vv. 22–23) and he means the same thing in Romans 5:20: “Moreover the law entered that the offence might abound.” Yet, in Christ, “where sin abounded, grace abounded much more.”
The old covenant structure and all that it entailed was designed by God to increase the sense of guilt so that those living under the former covenant would long for and look to one outside of themselves; to the one who alone could save them. God wanted them to become hopeless so that they could experience the gospel and be truly hopeful.
This principle remains: We need to be hopeless before we have a hope of being hopeful!
There is much here that points parents to how to raise their children for Christ, to raise them in such a way that they will come to Christ for salvation, for redemption, for forgiveness of their sins.
Let me put it this way: There is great wisdom in raising your children in a religious structure that constantly confronts them with their responsibility to be right with God. In other words, godly parenting requires that we raise our children exposing them to the law of God, confronting them with the law of God. We don’t do that by resurrecting the old covenantal sacrificial system. But we do raise them pointing to God’s same demand for holiness. We do so by pointing them to their need to seek forgiveness for their sinful behaviour and for their sinful attitudes. If we carefully, lovingly, intentionally structure our home life to be always pointing our children to the glorious, because holy God,they will eventually come to grips with the reality that they have a guilty conscience. And they will come to realise that they cannot alleviate this guilt on their own. It is then that they are ripe to believe the gospel. It is this desperation that we want them to experience. Only then will they be in a condition to experience the glorious deliverance through the gospel.
As a fellow elder in our church recently said, children love to live in the shadows; we must bring them into the light.
Do all that you can to have a home that has a covenantal structure; that is, a home where God’s rules rule, a home where God’s law is literally seen and heard. The Bible should be prominent in a gracious and sincere way. Further, believing parents are right to require their children to go to church.
I have heard ad nauseum the lame statement that parents should not “force” their children to attend church. Really? Apply that same philosophy tomorrow when it is time for your child to attend school! The truth is, if you are a hypocrite and are forcing your child to go to church then the problem is not with their attendance but rather with you. But if you love God, and if you love the gospel, and if you love the souls of your children, then expect them to come to church. And if they can sit in school then expect for them to sit in the service and pay attention. As they are exposed to this glorious new covenant being regularly declared, pray that their consciences become weighted with guilt that they may might be released by grace.
The same, of course, applies to sinners of all ages. Some of you may not yet be saved simply because you are not taking seriously the law of God. You are so sporadic in church attendance and in Bible-reading because you are so flippant about your condition that you do not even realise the seriousness of it. You have deceived your conscience and so have no proper understanding how filthy and guilty it is. Pay attention to God’s law, pay attention to His Word. Get out of the shadows and into the light!
A Glorious High Priest
In vv. 11–12)the writer now points to Christ as a better High Priest and a better tabernacle.
But Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption.
“There is no greater burden in this world than the guilt of our sin. Other burdens weary the feet or the back; this burden wearies the soul.”3 But there is a way, and it is the only way, to have a clear conscience: through the person and work of the glorious High Priest, the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the all-glorious sanctuary, who has offered the all-glorious sacrifice: Himself. He is the “redemption.” He is the way for us to “enter the Most Holy Place once for all” by “His own blood.”
We are told that the “good things” anticipated under the older covenant are now a reality. The old Levitical system no longer has statusor standingbecause, as he has told us earlier, our High Priest is sitting!
Nothing but the Blood
We are told that Jesus did not enter into this glorious presence of God with the blood of bulls and goats but rather “with His own blood” (v. 12). With chapter 9, the word “blood” becomes a recurring theme.
We need to appreciate that the word “blood” does not primarily have reference to the material substance. It includes that, but is not limited to it. “Blood” refers to “life” (Leviticus 17:11). Jesus gave His life as the sacrificial offering for sinners.
The blood of Christ means that He laid down His life as a sacrifice. And by virtue of this atoning offering, sinners have been set free (“redemption”). We are free from the guilt and power of sin “once for all.” Our freedom is “eternal.” That is, it is signed, sealed and secure—forever!
It is in the light of these glorious truths that we have every reason to identify Jesus as the glorious High Priest as the founder of the gloriousnewcovenant.
Let me summarise: Through Jesus Christ we have unlimited access to God because of the unlimited efficacy of His saving work. Perhaps you have sinned and are burdened with a guilty conscience. “Can anything be done for the blameworthy sinner, overwhelmed with remorse, longing for release from the oppression and tyranny of unrelieved guilt?”4
Yes indeed! Christian, as God graciously convicts us of our sin, we can come to the throne of grace, confessing our sins knowing that He is faithful and just to forgive us of our sins (1 John 1:9). The final verses tell us why this is so and what results.
A Grateful Heart
As noted from the outset, the closing verses bring us to some practical issues that arise from properly appreciating the new covenant.
For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?
“Now we see what our author wishes to teach his readers. The really effective barrier to a man’s free access to God is an inward and not a material one; it exists in his conscience. It is only when the conscience is purified that a man is set free to approach God without reservation and offer Him acceptable service and worship.”5
The argument runs from the lesser to the greater. That is, if the blood of mere animals could do externally cleanse, then the blood of Christ can do infinitely more (v. 13). He can truly and fully cleanse us. And once we realise the depth of such a glorious work of redemption, we will respond with a grateful heart (v. 14).
I once heard R. C. Sproul relate something that he heard from one of his professors: “The essence of theology is grace and the essence of ethics is gratitude.” That is profoundly true.
Verse 13 references the old covenant truth that the prescribed regulations for ceremonial cleansing, including the sacrifice of the red heifer (Numbers 19), could remove ceremonial defilement. This is what is meant by “the purifying of the flesh.” As long as the regulations were followed, the priest could declare someone clean—albeit externally. But, as we have seen, and as we find from personal experience, this is not enough. Our consciences need to be cleansed. Only the blood of Christ can do this, and only the blood of Christ does do this.
To say that the blood of Christ alone can cleanse our conscience is a bold claim. How can we be sure? We can be sure because He was a spotless sacrifice. This is testified by the “eternal Spirit,” who empowered Him for His task of living a spotless life (see 1 Timothy 3:16; Romans 1:1–4). This is a wonderful reminder that the work of salvation is Trinitarian. As Jones points out,
Each person of the Holy Trinity was present and active in the moments in which redemption was actually secured, each in his own way. The Father was smiting the Son; the Son was submitting to the Father, and the Spirit was sustaining the incarnate Son. Only a triune God can save!6
This “threefold cord” can never be broken!
Active or Passive?
Theologians sometimes speak of the “active” and “passive” obedience of Christ. By the former, they mean that Jesus went through life intentionally (“actively”) obeying the law of God. The idea of “passivity” is that Jesus obeyed the Father by submitting to death on a cross. (Many would argue, and I believe correctly, that Jesus actively obeyed in this area as well.) This text clearly tells us that He “offered Himself … to God.” That is active obedience (see Philippians 2:5–8).
No animal ever volunteered to be a sacrifice on man’s behalf. But Jesus, the Lamb of God, did. And He could do so with complete confidence because of His lifelong obedience and hence His spotless character.
It is for this reason that you can be sure that the blood of Christ will “cleanse your conscience from dead works.” What does this mean? Raymond Brown says it well: “‘Dead works’ refer to man’s futile attempts to secure by his puny efforts his own present satisfaction and ultimate salvation.”7 The dead works are those attempts at making ourselves right with God under the old covenant. Though the sacrificial and ceremonial “works” were prescribed by God, they were dead because they were touched by sinners. And sinners defile what they touch.
But here is the gospel: In Christ we are forgiven! By His blood, we are freed from trying to justify ourselves. By His sacrificial work, our sinful works, words and wraths are forgiven. The guilty conscience is replaced with a graced conscience and thus a cleansed one. “There is deep, glorious forgiveness in the New Covenant, and it is available to all.”8
This produces a grateful consecration. Those experiencing redemption through the glorious High Priest are freed “to serve the living God.”
Note the contrast: “dead works” and “living God.” This is a significant contrast. The implication is that, when we seek to approach God through works, it is as if God is dead—insofar as relationship goes. However, through Christ we are brought into a vital relationship with the God who lives. The result is that we serve Him as priests. This is the meaning of “serve.” It speaks of priestlyservice. We have the privilege of serving the living God alongside our most glorious High Priest! Such service is motivated by gratitude.
We are now in many ways back to a latent idea suggested in v. 1: namely, that the new covenant has a “place” where we serve and worship. As the new covenant people of God, we are a priesthood (1 Peter 2:5, 9–10; Revelation 1:6). Priests serve. We serve our God. And we do so because of a devotion-driven duty. A non-serving Christian is as contradictory as a biltong-eating Vegan. It makes no sense.
Saved to Serve
The gospel drives us to serve the one who “offered Himself without spot to God.” If you are not serving then my goal is not primarily to get you to serve. If you are not serving, my concern is that you understand why you are not serving: You are not grateful! You are not serving because you are self-centred. You are not serving because your conscience has not been cleansed. You are not serving because you are not being saved from your sins.
My appeal is that you repent and believe the gospel. Stop with your inglorious living. Rather, believe the gospel and live as separated unto the gospel. As Spurgeon wrote,
To serve the living God is necessary to the happiness of a living man: for this end we were made, and we miss the design of our making if we do not honor our Maker. “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and enjoy Him forever.” If we miss that end we are ourselves terrible losers. The service of God is the element in which alone we can fully live.9
As you contemplate the glorious new covenant, realise that more glorious things are yet to come. Let your gratitude drive you to serve as you love and live for the living God.
- Raymond Brown, The Message of Hebrews: The Bible Speaks Today (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2000), 152. ↩
- Richard D. Phillips, Hebrews: Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2006), 305. ↩
- Phillips, Hebrews, 305. ↩
- Brown, The Message of Hebrews, 154. ↩
- F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews: The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 196. ↩
- Hywel R. Jones, Let’s Study Hebrews (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2002), 102. ↩
- Brown, The Message of Hebrews, 159. ↩
- R. Kent Hughes, Hebrews: An Anchor for the Soul, 2 vols. (Wheaton: Crossway, 1993), 230. ↩
- Phillips, Hebrews, 307. ↩