NOTES on Hebrews 8:1-6 (click here for study)

In chapter 8 of Hebrews, the author moves from explaining how Jesus' priesthood is superior to that of earthly priests to showing that the covenant of which he is the priest is a better covenant than the old one. He begins by establishing that Jesus' priestly work in heaven lays the groundwork for the better covenant he mediates.


Jesus' High Priesthood Defined

Certain characteristics and qualifications define Jesus' priesthood. He was made "like his brothers" in every way. (Hebrews 2:17-18) Jesus became human, and he was tempted as we are. This text in Hebrews 2 says Jesus experienced temptation in order to be a merciful and faithful high priest, in order to "make atonement for the sins of the people," and in order "to help those who are being tempted." Jesus had to be a human in order to become our high priest. He also had to experience the temptations common to humanity and to remain sinless.

Besides meeting the requirement of being human, Jesus was appointed by God himself for the job of eternal high priest. He was also worthy of greater honor than was Moses, the mediator of the Old Covenant and one of Israel's greatest patriarchs. (Hebrews 3:1-3) Jesus was a human, but his priesthood was not a human inheritance as were the other priests'. Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and from the moment of his conception, he had a living, sinless spirit. His living spirit set him apart from all the rest of humanity because all others have been born with dead, sinful spirits.

His sinlessness and his perfect sacrifice and resurrection qualified him to go "through the heavens", to be in the physical presence of God, and to be able to sympathize and to help us as we struggle with temptation. His triumph gives us permission to approach God with confidence, certain of the mercy and help we will receive from him. (Hebrews 4:14-15)

Hebrews 5:5-10 also stresses that Jesus was appointed by God's oath. The fact of his divine appointment is one of the most important characteristics of Jesus' high priesthood. He was not a priest by inheritance as were the Aaronic priests and the Levites. His high priesthood is singular. Jesus was not from the priestly tribe of Levi. He was from the royal tribe of Judah, and no human from the tribe of Judah had ever held the office of priest, let alone high priest. Yet in spite of his divine conception and appointment, he had to learn obedience to his Father through his temptations and his suffering. His success and perfection make him the one perfect source of salvation.

Jesus is "holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens." (v. 26) His perfection qualified him to bear all of our sins in himself. He died from our death. Hs sinless perfection, ironically, is what qualified Jesus to be the sacrifice for our sins. His death for our sins and his rising from that death is what made him able to be exalted above the heavens. He offered himself as our sacrifice for sin, and his death was the once-for-all offering that forgives us.

Jesus, our high priest, entered the real Most Holy-heaven and God's presence-by the cleansing of his own blood. Unlike the priests of the Old Testament who offered the blood of animals, Jesus offered himself, and his blood has eternally solved the problem of sin and reversed our death sentence. (Hebrews 9:11-12)


A Look Back

The Israelite high priests offered the blood of bulls and goats as sin offerings. But these offerings "were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper. They are only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings." (Hebrews 9:9-10) These sacrifices and rituals were "external regulations" which would last until the Messiah came and offered the one true sacrifice and performed the one true ritual of resurrection.

When Jesus came it was necessary that he have something to offer because the essence of the high priest's role was to mediate for the people's sins by presenting sin offerings. Jesus, as God's oath-appointed high priest, also had to mediate for people's sins, but because he was God's choice, his offering had to actually work. Sin's power had to be broken. Jesus' sacrifice had to pay the price of the curse of sin once and for all.

The fact that the Old Testament animal sacrifices were not sufficient to atone for sins and had to be repeated over and over pointed out the inadequacy of the Old Covenant. The priesthood was imperfect and incapable of offering adequate sacrifices for sins, and the sacrifices themselves were not able to wash away sins. The priesthood and the sacrifices were the heart of the agreement between God and Israel, and their flaws foreshadowed the end the Old Covenant. A system of atonement that could not achieve eternal cleansing was destined to disappear.


Shadows of Heavenly Things

The Israelite priests scrupulously observed the law and offered the required sacrifices in the prescribed ways. They performed these rituals in their tabernacle that was "a copy, and shadow of what is in heaven." (v.5)

The tabernacle on earth was a "copy" of the heavenly sanctuary. (Hebrews 9:11-12, 23) The law was a shadow "of the good things that are coming-not of the realities themselves." (Hebrews 10:1) The ceremonies and holy days were shadows "of things that were to come; the reality however is found in Christ." (Col. 2:17)

For hundreds of years, Israelite priests offered sacrifices at their temple and performed rituals prescribed by their law, and all of these things-the sacrifices, the temple, the law, the priesthood itself-were only shadows of a reality they could not yet see.


Bread of the Presence

God instructed Moses regarding the furnishings and symbols that had to be present in the tabernacle. In the Holy Place, for instance, stood a gold-covered table of acacia wood on which stood the twelve loaves of showbread, or bread of the Presence. Besides representing the twelve tribes of Israel and foreshadowing the twelve apostles, this bread represented the presence of Christ. Jesus became known as the Bread of Life, and at his final Passover he instituted the New Covenant communion when he said that the Passover bread was his body broken for us. We are to eat the broken communion bread in remembrance of Jesus as a symbol of taking into ourselves the power and strength of our Savior who has died for our sins.

Even in ancient Israel the Holy Place held a continuous symbol of Jesus and his life-giving sacrifice that would cost him death but would give us eternity. This symbol was even in the form of twelve loaves representing the foundation of both God's Old Covenant people and his New Covenant people. In the Old Covenant, God's physical presence on earth stayed in the temple in the midst of Israel. In the New Covenant, God's physical presence is inside the hearts of his believers, the church. The bread of the Presence foreshadowed Jesus being the source of our life, and the twelve loaves (which the priests ate every week) was a visual metaphor of Christ living in his people and mediating his life-giving power to the world through them.


Light of the World

Another major furnishing of the temple was the seven-branched candlestick which Aaron had to keep burning throughout the night. In Hebrews 9:2 the author of Hebrews refers to this candlestick, or lampstand, using the same Greek word John used in Revelation 1:12-13, 20; 2:1, 5; 11:3-4 to describe the seven lampstands representing the seven churches. From the time of ancient Israel, God placed a symbol of the future reality of the church inside the temple. The flames on the candles which burned all night represented the presence of Jesus in the church through the indwelling Holy Spirit, lighting the darkness with truth. Only when Jesus came would this symbol begin to make sense.

"In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it." (John 1:4,5)

"They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them," says Luke in describing the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was given to the church. (Acts 2:3)


Altar of Incense

The altar of incense was another gold-covered acacia wood structure inside the tabernacle. It stood directly in front of the curtain which hid the Ark of the Testimony. The use of incense was an acknowledgment of the presence of God.

"My name will be great among the nations, from the rising to the setting of the sun. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to my name, because my name will be great among the nations," says the Lord Almighty. (Malachi 1:11)

The fragrant smoke rising from the incense represented the prayers of God's people.

"May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice." (Psalm 141:2)

"Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayer of all the saints, on the golden altar before the throne. The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of the saints, went up before God from the angel's hand." (Revelation 8:3,4)


The Priests

The priests who served in the temple and accepted the people's offerings and sacrifices were the mediators between the people and the temple of God. The men and women of Israel could not enter even the Holy Place where the priests could minister. They were not allowed past the outer court where sacrifices were made. The priests, however, could enter the Holy Place although not the Most Holy Place. They could serve before the veil that represented Christ's body. They could approach the glory of God, but they could not enter into it.

The priests foreshadowed the church of the New Covenant. Christ's true followers today are his priests. We serve in the temple of God-in fact, we are the temple of God. We have within us the living presence of God through the Holy Spirit. Our lives mediate the presence and the love of Christ to the world around us. Today, many people come to know God because of their contact with us, the priests and the temple of Christ. We serve the New Covenant equivalent of the Old Testament priests. We help those who need atonement to find the grace of Christ and to accept his gifts of salvation and forgiveness.


Curtain: Christ's Body

The curtain separating the Holy from the Most Holy place and hiding the Ark of the Covenant (also called the Ark of the Testimony) from all human eyes except those of the high priest represented the body of Jesus. (Hebrews 10:19-20) Not until the curtain in the temple ripped at the moment of Christ's death did the people begin to understand the significance of this symbol.

For centuries before the birth of Jesus, his symbol hung in the Israelites' place of worship, shielding them all, including the priests, from the visible presence of God. If any human had gazed at God's glory over the Ark of the Covenant, he or she would have died. Humanity's unremitting sinfulness doomed them to death in the presence of God.

The curtain is the heart of the symbol of the heavenly reality preceding the cross of Christ. Man and God could not be in each other's presence. Sin had separated them with a gulf that no one could bridge.

Even before Jesus came and became our sacrifice, even before he became our high priest and mediator, he was our shield from the glory of God. Jesus stood between mankind and God's holiness, preventing us from being permanently destroyed in our arrogance, mercifully shielding us from the consuming justice of God's presence.

Only when Jesus' body was tortured and he finally gave up his spirit to God and died did the protective curtain in the temple rip from top to bottom. Jesus no longer had to stand between us and the presence of God. He had paid the price sin required, and his sacrifice spanned the unbridgeable gulf between humanity and God. From then on individuals could approach God and be in his presence without fear of death. Through Christ we all can stand before God and receive his mercy and his forgiveness without the mediation of priests or the offering of animals.


The Most Holy Place

In the Most Holy Place of the tabernacle resided the core of the Old Covenant. Inside the Ark of the Covenant, also called the Ark of the Testimony, lay the stone tablets on which God had written the Ten Commandments with his finger. On the side of the ark were the laws God gave Moses explaining how Israel was to live. Right above the ark, over the place where the stone tablets lay, was the "atonement cover" over which two golden angels arched their wings. The Shekina glory, the visible presence of God, rested on the atonement cover.

This was the place where God had his literal presence on earth. Before the advent of the Old Covenant, God did not have a regular dwelling place on earth. This heavenly glory residing in the tabernacle was something new, and all Israel knew that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was with them and chose them for his people. The pillar of cloud which had led them out of Egypt came to a permanent rest above the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.

When Aaron went into the Most Holy Place every year to offer the blood of atonement, he had to take with him a censor filled with fire from the altar of incense. He had to wave it in front of him and let it fill the tiny chamber with smoke, concealing the atonement cover from his view. Even though Aaron (and subsequent high priests) were allowed to present the yearly offerings in the presence of God, they still were not allowed to look directly at the place where God's glory resided. Because the Israelite high priests' sins were not permanently wiped clean, they were unable to approach God directly and live. Their sin stood between them and God, even as they made atonement for the nation.

The Ark of the Covenant and the tables of commandments represented the entire Old Covenant. They spelled the rules for Israelite life and worship. They explained God's expectations for them. The law explained that Israel would be blessed if they kept the commandments, but it also explained that they would be cursed if they did not. The ark and its contents held both a promise and a curse: the glory of God hung over it, but the law was an impossible requirement. Israel lived with the knowledge that they were condemned to death, but they also had the reassurance that God claimed them and would bring a Redeemer.

Aaron himself represented Jesus, the promised Savior. As he made temporary atonement for Israel each year in the presence of God but hidden from sight by the smoke from the holy fire in the censor, he was foreshadowing the work and the atonement of Christ's sacrifice for us. Jesus would come and die, solving the problem of sin for all eternity.

When Jesus came, he ushered in the New Covenant. His death and resurrection have permanently removed the unalterable curse of sin from those who believe in him. His covenant is infinitely better than the old because it is based upon "better promises". God himself promised that Jesus would take away the sins of the world, and Jesus, the Son of God, died the only death that could accomplish such a task.



Many of us learned that the temple in the Old Testament represented the temple in heaven. In a sense that teaching is true. But rather than representing a literal temple, as we were taught, the tabernacle in the wilderness represented a heavenly reality that is not a building. In the Old Covenant, the reality in heaven was that humanity was separated from God. No man could approach God directly and live without specific intervention on God's part as in the case of Moses and of the high priests in the temple.

The Holy Place represented God's work on earth before Jesus' death. God revealed himself in a limited way through his chosen people, Israel, represented by the twelve loaves of showbread in the compartment. The high priest lit the lampstand every evening, and the light shone in the darkness every night. But the priests served in front of the protective veil. Jesus kept them safe from the glory of God. They served Israel and they served God, but their work was limited to maintaining "shadows" and symbols of Israel's promise. The priest's work was to keep the promise of the Messiah alive and to keep the reality of God's grace before the people.

The Most Holy Place represented the actual presence of God. In the Old Covenant, no one, not even the high priests, could freely approach Him. His presence was real; all Israel knew He was present in the temple. Although God was in Israel's midst, however, he was just out of reach.

In the New Covenant, there is no Holy Place. The curtain, Jesus' body, has been ripped, and the presence of God is available to all of humanity if they accept the sacrifice of Jesus and the new birth of the Holy Spirit. When Jesus entered heaven and sat by his Father, he entered the Most Holy Place. In the New Covenant God lives in each believing heart, and Jesus, our high priest, mediates his righteousness to us from the literal presence of God.

Unlike our early teaching, Jesus did not enter a separate compartment and move to the Most Holy Place at a later date. Jesus entered the Most Holy Place immediately, because there was no other place to enter. His death had destroyed the dividing veil that kept people from the presence of God. He no longer had to protect humanity from the glory of God. Instead, he opened a living way by which we may all enter His presence.

The cross changed forever the heavenly reality. The Old Covenant temple, priests, sacrifices, and laws are obsolete. A New Covenant has come, and it is founded on much better promises. It puts the Living Law, the Holy Spirit, in us, and by faith in Christ's death and resurrection, we can be counted righteous once for all!

God is asking you to trust him with your life. He's asking you to trust Jesus' death and resurrection. He's asking you to let him show you what you need to lay aside in order to live in his presence with faith and honesty.

Jesus promises to wipe away your shame, your fear, and your guilt. Let him embrace you with his love and show you how much he treasures you. Trust him to hold you as you risk giving up your control over your life. Trust him to love you as you risk losing the familiar props in your life. Trust him to cover your past sins with his righteousness. Let him give you a new life.

The Holy Spirit promises to come as Jesus' living presence in you. Trust him to direct you, to show you reality, to guide you to truth. Trust him to give you the wisdom of God and the insight of Christ to help you live your life with purpose and integrity. Trust him to soften the hard, protective shell in your heart and to give you a new vulnerable heart open to his love.

Praise God for changing reality! Praise God for the New Covenant. Praise God that he redeems our past, that nothing that happened to us is wasted. Praise God for his healing love and for the certainty of truth. Praise God for salvation.

Praise God that we have passed from death to life and that nothing can ever take us out of his love.

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