To understand this section of the Book of Hebrews, it is essential to understand the concept of a covenant, as it underlies the whole of Biblical theology. One the best ways of defining a covenant is that it is a legal way of defining a relationship, whether between two people or groups of people, or between God and his people. In the Bible, there are three different types of covenant:
1. Parity Covenant
This is a covenant between two people of approximately equal status. The two parties
negotiate and arrive at the terms of the agreement, forming a partnership. An example is marriage
between husband and wife, and the covenant between Jacob and Laban (Gen 31:44).
2. Suzerainty Covenant
The whole book of Deuteronomy is structured like a suzerainty covenant, which was a covenant that is imposed on smaller nation by a more powerful ruler, who had conquered that nation. Both the king and the people would take on certain obligations, but the smaller nation had no choice but to accept and keep the terms of the covenant, or be a transgressor if they broke it. There were blessings for obeying the covenant and curses for breaking it. The Mosaic covenant is understood as being based on a suzerainty covenant, where God made a covenant with his people Israel on Sinai (Ex 24) and renewed in the land (Josh 23:16-28), where God makes the covenant and the people take an oath to obey as a covenant of law.
3. Covenant of Promise
This is a legally binding promise given from one side only, from God’s side. God made promises to men. It is not two-way agreement. God made it, swears to it, fulfils it and man only receives the benefits of it. When God takes the oath, it becomes a covenant of grace. There are no conditions on our side. Examples are the Abrahamic and New Covenants (Heb 6:17-18, Gen 15:7-20). In Gen 15:12-21, God passed through and between the halved animals and took the oath while Abraham was asleep. This covenant was fulfilled in Jesus and although God never broke this covenant, he was crucified for the people’s lack of faithfulness to the Mosaic covenant. This covenant is a picture of God in his grace and man in his sin. God imposed on himself an obligation to deliver mankind. It is a sovereign administration of grace, not a contract, as God says that it has no conditions. Blood is shed because atonement demanded a blood sacrifice. An innocent life must pay for sin.
The Old Covenant replaced by the New (8:1-13)
The problem with the OT covenant was that people swore that they would keep it (Ex 24:3-
7), but they broke it, so God established a New Covenant (Heb 8:8-9). The first covenant needed
someone to guarantee the people’s fulfilment of their oath. Jesus in the New Covenant fulfils the
covenant that he mediates, God makes the covenant, sets the demands and conditions, takes the oath,
and then fulfils the covenant himself.
The Sanctuary (8:1-7)
The author continues his argument by showing that because Jesus was a superior high priest, he established a superior covenant, based on superior promises. He does this by comparing and contrasting the earthly tabernacle set up in the wilderness by Moses, with the true heavenly sanctuary which Moses copied to construct the earthly tabernacle.
The tabernacle was the place of the presence of God in the wilderness, where God dwelt
among his people. In the camp, the people of Israel were arranged according to their tribes, with the
tabernacle in the centre (Numbers 2), so God really was in the midst of his people. This is the
significance of John describing the incarnate Word of God becoming flesh and living (literally
tabernacling) among us (Jn 1:14). The author shows that the Exodus tabernacle was only a shadow of
the real spiritual tabernacle in heaven. In his understanding, the earthly world is only a shadow of the
heavenly or spiritual world.
In the previous chapter, the author showed that Jesus was the superior high priest. Now he declares that this high priest is seated at the right hand of the throne of God in the heavens (v1), and is a minister in the true tent set up by the Lord, not by any mortal man (v2).
The job of a high priest is to offer gifts and sacrifices (v3), so Jesus as the high priest also
had to have something to offer - himself. According to the OT law, Jesus could not be a priest
because he was from the tribe of Judah, rather than being a Levite (v4). The earthly priests offer
worship in the earthly sanctuary, which is only a sketch and shadow of the heavenly tabernacle. At
the time the book was written, the priests continue to serve in the earthly sanctuary. This may give a
clue to the date of the book, that the temple in Jerusalem was still standing, and the priests are still
serving in it, suggesting a date sometime before the Fall of Jerusalem to the Romans and the
destruction of the temple in AD 70. Herod’s temple was a magnificent building but was certainly
only a shadow. It did not even have the ark of the covenant, which was probably lost when Solomon’s
temple was destroyed (586 BC). In 63 BC, when Pompey conquered Jerusalem, he and the Roman
soldiers were amazed to find that the Holy of Holies was empty.
The contrast between the earthly and heavenly sanctuaries
|Set up by man
||Set up by the Lord (v2)
|Copy and shadow
|High priest - mortal and sinful
||High priest - Jesus (v1)
The heavenly temple is seen in the Book of Revelation (8:3, 11:19, 15:5), where it is used to
describe the place of the presence of God. Moses was given a vision of this heavenly tent on Sinai
and told to make a physical copy of it (v5 - quoting Ex 25:9,40). By contrast, Jesus obtained a more
excellent ministry than Moses, and became the mediator of a better covenant, which is based on
better promises (v6). Because the first covenant was not faultless, it needed replacing with a second one.
Superiority of new covenant (8:8-13)
To prove his case, the author gives a lengthy quotation from the prophet Jeremiah (Jer 31:31-
34), who over 600 years before, had predicted the coming of a new covenant. This would replace the
existing covenant because it had failed. The fundamental weakness of a suzerainty covenant such as
the Mosaic Covenant is that it is two-sided. For the covenant to succeed, both sides needed to keep it.
The reason the first covenant had failed was that the people broke it. God always remained faithful,
keeping his side totally, but the story of the OT is the continued failure of the people to remain faithful to the covenant.
In the quotation, Jeremiah gives a contrast between the two covenants. The first covenant was
made after God led the people out of Egypt (v9), and was solemnly inaugurated on Mt Sinai (Ex 24).
The covenant was broken because the people “did not continue in my covenant” (v9). The first
record of the covenant being broken was in the making and worshipping of the golden calf (Ex 32).
Because of this, Jeremiah predicted its replacement by a new covenant (v10-12). By contrast,
this covenant cannot be broken. This is because it is one-sided, based only on what God does, and not
on the actions of the people. Unfaithfulness from the people cannot break this new covenant. The
new covenant is all based on the promises of God, indicated by the repeated 'I will' (v8,10,12). This new covenant has three particular characteristics:
The first is that it is inward (v10a). God promises that he will put his law on their minds and
write it on their hearts. The old covenant was written on tablets of stone, being an external law code,
mostly addressing outward actions. By contrast, the new covenant is inward, challenging the attitudes
of the heart. Jesus made this point in the Sermon on the Mount: The physical act of adultery was
forbidden in the OT, while looking lustfully at a woman is now seen as adultery too (Mt 5:27-28).
The second is that the new covenant is universal (v10b-11). Under the old covenant, only a
limited number of people had a real relationship with God, only few had the experience of the Holy
Spirit. By contrast, under the new covenant, everyone can know God personally. All have the
opportunity to have access to the Father, from the least to the greatest. There is no need of any
intermediaries, meaning that priests are no longer necessary. There will be a priesthood of all
believers, because the Holy Spirit will dwell within each believer, as predicted by Joel (Joel 2:28-29).
The third is that the new covenant brings forgiveness of sin (v12). God’s mercy and grace
will blot out sin, so God will remember their sin no more (v12). Under the old covenant there was no
sacrifice available for deliberate sin, only the penalty of judgement (mostly the death penalty), while
under the new covenant, sin will be forgiven totally. This is because Jesus was also the sacrifice, a theme which is developed in the next chapters.
The author’s conclusion to the quotation of Jeremiah is that the first covenant is therefore obsolete (v13), so it is essential for his readers not to be tempted to return to it. “What is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear” (v13b) is perhaps a prediction of AD 70, when the temple and priesthood will be destroyed. At the time of writing, the old system was already spiritually obsolete, and was later physically removed.
The Heavenly Sanctuary (9:1-22)
Description of earthly tabernacle (9:1-5)
The author dwells on the beauty and glory of the original tabernacle. Again we should notice
how the author gives dignity to the tabernacle and its worship. He does not malign it at all, but merely
points out its limitations as it is only a shadow of the reality of Jesus. There are several limitations:
There was restricted access into the presence of God, as only the High Priest was allowed beyond the
veil, and that was only once a year on the Day of Atonement. There was only partial cleansing, of
external uncleanness, not the heart. There was also only limited pardon, only for sins of ignorance,
not for deliberate sin. However it looked forward to the good things that Jesus achieved (v11-14).
He describes two tents: The first tent was the Holy Place containing the lamp-stand, table and
the bread of the Presence (v2). The second tent was the Holy of Holies beyond the veil, containing
the incense altar and the ark of the covenant (v3-4). In the ark were some special objects, which
reminded the people of special times of God’s activity: the golden urn containing the manna, Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tablets of the covenant (v4).
There is an apparent contradiction over the position of incense altar (v4). In the Exodus account, it is placed in the Holy Place (Ex 30:6), and here it is in the Holy of Holies. The incense was to burn and the smoke was to penetrate through the veil to the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies as a pleasing odour to the Lord. So the incense altar is associated with the Holy of Holies, but was placed in the Holy Place so the priests could keep it burning, which formed part of their daily ritual duties (v6). They were not allowed into the Holy of Holies, so the incense altar could not be in there.
Description of priest’s duties (9:6-10)
Over the next two chapters, there is a continuing contrast between the priests who have to
perform their ritual duties repeatedly day after day and the once and for all work of Christ, which
never needs to be repeated. One of the key repeated phrases is 'once for all'.
The ordinary priests go into the first tent (the Holy Place) every day, while only the High
Priest entered the second tent (the Holy of Holies), and that was only once a year on the Day of
Atonement (v6-7), when he had to take blood offered for himself and for the people. In the OT
period, the way into the Holy of Holies was closed by the veil, showing that access into the presence
of God was not available, because of the barrier of sin. As long as the first tent was still standing, it
visually demonstrated that access to God was blocked (v8). The curtain in the temple was torn at the
crucifixion (Mt 27:51) showing that the way is now open for all. I often wonder if the temple
authorities quickly repaired it. The whole Levitical system was symbolic of the deeper truth, the
reality that was to come, and that has now come in Jesus. It can be seen as a type of Christ. A type is
anything which physically real in OT times, which pointed towards something greater that would be
established by Jesus. With the coming of Jesus, the symbol has no further function, necessity or
meaning. It gives a strong message to the original readers tempted to return to Judaism not to forsake the ultimate fulfilment of all that Judaism stood for.
The Old Covenant revealed sin, but was powerless to remove it, while the New Covenant
breaks the power of sin and is able to cleanse the conscience (9:14, 10:1,4,11-18,22). The New
Covenant is therefore a better covenant (8:6-7), making the Old Covenant obsolete (8:13). Because it
is a covenant of grace, the New Covenant has no stipulations for the people to keep, God takes all the
stipulations on himself and sees to it that they are upheld. The Old Covenant of law was only an
outward guide with no power to change people, while the New Covenant of grace is an inward guide
which brings transformation and power over sin. The Levitical system was a temporary system which
dealt only with externals, giving regulations for the body until Jesus came as the fulfilment of the symbol and removed the need for it.
Jesus - the fulfilment of the Day of Atonement (9:11-14)
This paragraph makes more sense once we know what happened on the Day of Atonement, as instituted in Lev ch 16, which is summarised as follows:
a. Washing and dressing of Aaron (v3-4)
b. Summary of offerings (v5-10) - One bull and two goats
One bull was sacrificed as a sin offering for Aaron and his household (v11-14). The first goat for the Lord, as a sin offering (v15-19). The second goat for Azazel, given as a live offering, and sent into wilderness to make atonement (v20-22).
c. The bull, killed as sin offering for Aaron (v11-14)
Coals of fire and incense are taken into Holy of Holies, and the blood of the bull sprinkled seven times on the mercy seat on the top of the ark of the covenant.
d. The first goat, killed as sin offering for people (v15-19)
The blood of the first goat was sprinkled seven times on the mercy seat to make atonement for the Holy Place and Tent of Meeting. The blood of the bull and goat was then sprinkled seven times on the altar of burnt offering to make atonement for it.
e. The second goat (v20-22) - not mentioned in Heb chapter 7
This was known as the scapegoat, which was presented alive before the Lord. Aaron laid his hands on it, confessing all the sins of people on the head of goat, before it was sent out into the wilderness to Azazel.
f. Washing and dressing of Aaron and person who led the scapegoat (v23-28)
A ram was offered as a burnt offering, and the remains of the bull and first goat were disposed of outside the camp.
g. Establishment of the annual Day of Atonement (v29-34)
On the tenth day of seventh month, as a perpetual statute and Sabbath. An atonement for sins of people by sons of Aaron.
The author looks back to the Day of Atonement and sees Jesus as being the fulfilment of all it
stood for. The key contrast is that the sacrifice of Christ is 'once for all' never needing to be
repeated, showing its effectiveness, so he can use a 'how much more' argument. How much more
effective the blood of Christ is when compared with the blood of the animals sacrificed each year on the Day of Atonement.
Christ is the High Priest in the greater and more perfect tent, as shown in the previous chapter
(v11). Jesus entered once and for all into the greater, perfect heavenly tent, not made by human
hands, with his own blood, not the blood of animals, therefore he obtained eternal redemption (v12).
The shed blood of animals only brings outward cleansing, purifying the flesh of those who have been
defiled, or made unclean. By contrast, the blood of Christ sanctifies to purify the conscience through
the eternal Spirit (v14). Jesus gave himself a voluntary sacrifice, he gave his own life, in contrast to
involuntary animal sacrifices. Only through Christ can inner cleansing be achieved. We should note
that the word 'blood' is often used in the Bible as a metonymy, where a part of something refers to
the whole. The blood represents the life of the sacrifice. In Hebrew and OT thought, the life of the
animal was in the blood (Lev 17:11), so the shed blood implies the death of the victim, whether an animal or Jesus himself.
The ashes of heifer (v13) refers to Num 19, where a red heifer was sacrificed to remove
ceremonial impurity, and as a sin offering. The cow was totally burned outside the camp, and the
ashes were kept so some could be used when required for sprinkling with water to purify a
ceremonially unclean person. The burning of the red heifer later became one of the rituals performed on the Day of Atonement.
Through the New Covenant the conscience is cleansed from dead works (v14). These include
any attempts at earning our own salvation, which need repenting from (as 6:1). The purpose of the
cleansing of the conscience is so we can worship and serve the living God. Our worship and service
comes as a result of a clean conscience, and not in any way to attempt to earn it.
Comparison between the Day of Atonement and the work of Jesus
|Day of Atonement
|Priest entered Holy of Holies once a year (9:7)
||Jesus entered once and for all (9:12)
|Priest takes blood which he offers for himself and for others (9:7)
||Without blemish (9:14)
needs no atonement
Not with blood of goats and bulls, but his own blood (9:12)
|Purification of flesh (9:13)
(temporary, outward, ceremonial cleansing)
|Purify consciences from dead works (9:14)
(inward cleansing of heart and conscience)
| Can never make perfect (10:1)
||Perfected for all time (10:14)
|Way into the sanctuary not opened (9:8)
||New and living way which he opened for us through the curtain (his flesh) (10:20)
Blood needed to validate covenants (9:15-22)
Christ is the mediator of the new covenant because of his death (v15). His death gains
forgiveness for past sins, which could not be atoned for under the old covenant, as well as opening
the way to fellowship with God. A legal illustration is then given (v16-17): a will or covenant (same
word) only takes effect at the person’s death, so it is the death of Jesus that redeems people from transgressions under the first covenant (v15).
In all aspects of the Old Covenant, the use of blood was essential (v18-21). At the
inauguration of the covenant, Moses used blood to ratify the covenant, sprinkling the book and the
people with blood (v19, quoting Ex 24:8). This is same statement that Jesus made during the Last
Supper, when he told his disciples to drink the wine, which was his blood of the covenant (Mt 26:28,
1 Cor 11:25). Then in the same way, Moses sprinkled the tent and vessels with blood (v21), which
was repeated each year on the Day of Atonement. Almost everything in the law was purified with
blood (v22), because without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins. Sin is such a
serious thing in the sight of God, that the penalty for sin is death. Under the sacrificial system God
accepted the death of an animal in the place of the person, so the death of the sacrificial animal made
atonement, or covering, for sin. However, no sacrifice was available for deliberate sin. This
atonement for sin looked forward to and foreshadowed the sacrifice of his Son, whose death would
bring complete forgiveness for all sin, including deliberate sin.
The Once and For All Sacrifice (9:23 - 10:18)
Jesus - the final sacrifice for sin (9:23-28)
Again the author brings the contrast between the heavenly and the earthly, the reality and the
shadow (as in chapter 8). The earthly tabernacle, described as sketches of the heavenly things, needed
to be purified with these rites described above (v23), while the heavenly things need a better
sacrifice. Christ entered into the true heavenly sanctuary, not merely the earthly sanctuary, and now
appears in the presence of God on our behalf (v24). He is our mediator and intercessor, the one
through whom we can come into the presence of God, and the one who intercedes for us before God.
The High Priest had to enter the Holy Place year after year on the Day of Atonement,
bringing the blood of an animal, but by contrast, Jesus offered himself once and for all (v25). The
sacrifices of the Day of Atonement had to be repeated every year, while the sacrifice of Jesus
happened on a single occasion, never to be repeated. Later the author argues that the mere fact that
sacrifices had to be repeated shows their ineffectiveness (10:1-2). The sacrifice of Jesus was effective
forever, so his suffering was never repeated. His single sacrifice inaugurated the end of the age (v26),
and the start of the new age of the Messiah, through which he established the Kingdom of God. The
author now gives a more eschatological perspective (v27-28). Jesus came a first time to deal with sin,
being offered once to bear the sins of many. When he comes a second time, he will not come to deal
with sin, but to save those eagerly waiting for him. This would act as an encouragement to the
original readers to continue in hope and persevere in faith, as they wait for his coming. At his second
coming, or after our own death (whichever comes first), there will be no more opportunity to repent.
Inadequacy of the Old Covenant to deal with sin (10:1-10)
The argument of this paragraph is to point out that the sacrifices are shown to be ineffective
by the simple fact that they are repeated year after year. If they were effective, why do they need to be repeated?
Again the author uses the shadow and reality theme. By definition, the shadow can only give
an outline or silhouette of the reality. So the law is only a shadow of the good things to come, which
is the reality (v1). If the sacrifices had been effective, then they would no longer be necessary, and
would cease, because the consciousness of sin would have been removed (v2). Only because they
were ineffective were they still being offered at the time of writing. This is another clue to the date of the book being before the Fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, after which there were no sacrifices because
the temple had been destroyed. The sacrifices only acted as a reminder of sin (v3), because they were
inadequate to deal with it. It is impossible for anything other than the death of Jesus to take away
sins, whether the OT sacrifices, or other religious sacrifices (v4).
Even in the OT, some key leaders, especially David and the prophets, realised that God
wanted more than sacrifices, but required personal obedience. This is shown by a series of quotations
from Psalm 40:6-8. The words of David are quoted, as if spoken by Jesus at his incarnation, which
gives a hint of the pre-existence of Christ. David states that God has taken no pleasure in sacrifices,
but desires a person whose desire is to obey and do the will of God. It is important to see this in the
OT, that a true relationship with God is based on faith and obedience, and not on rituals, as seen in
the following examples. In Psalm 51, after David’s sin with Bathsheba, he confessed and appealed for
mercy, fully understanding that no sacrifice would be acceptable, but only a broken and contrite heart
(Ps 51:16-17). Amos stated God’s opinion of sacrifices, when he said, “I hate and despise your feasts
... but let justice rule” (Amos 5:21-24). Jeremiah sarcastically told the people to eat their burnt
offerings, because obedience is more important than the correct form of sacrifice (Jer 7:21-26).
Samuel told Saul that, “to obey is better than sacrifice” (1 Sam 15:22). This is the real key to
understanding the Old Testament, to see the heart of the law. It is all too easy to see the law as only
concerning external religious actions. Outward observance was not and is not enough. God always
always wanted love and obedience. The sacrifices only had worth and effect when given as an
expression of a devoted and obedient heart. Jesus obeyed completely, even to death on the cross, and
so opened the way of sanctification. His once and for all sacrifice abolished the old system (v9).
Jesus’ finished work (10:11-18)
The author completes this section again by showing the contrast between the repetition and
ineffectiveness of old system, reminding his readers that the priests give daily sacrifices, standing day
after day, offering the same sacrifices which can never take away sins (v11). We can catch the sense
of futility of the repetition of these ineffective sacrifices and rituals. The whole system seems boring
and useless. Jesus offered a single sacrifice once and for all. There is also a contrast between the fact
that the priests stand in the service of God, continually offering the sacrifices, while Jesus sat down at the right hand of God, the place of authority, his work complete.
Since then he is waiting for his enemies to be made a footstool for his feet (v13, quoting Ps
110:1). This describes the present time between his first coming and his second coming (as 2:8). We
are still waiting for the consummation, the judgement and the glory of his second coming, the final
triumph of Jesus and our reign with him. There is no doubt about the outcome, his enemies will be
made a footstool, which brings great hope and security for the readers (and us). As Paul promises, “at
the name of Jesus every knee should bend ... and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil 2:10-11).
His single offering has perfected for all time those who are sanctified (v14). The work of the
cross has brought forgiveness and access to God forever for everyone who puts their faith in him. No
further sacrifice is needed. The Holy Spirit is the witness from scripture of forgiveness of sin (v15-
16). The author quotes from Jeremiah 31 again show that, in the New Covenant, the law will be in
their hearts (Jer 31:33), but also that God will remember their sins and lawless deeds no more (Jer
31:34). Therefore sin offerings are no longer needed, so the whole sacrificial system becomes redundant (v18).