The Conscience Of the Worshiper
Key Verse 9:8
“The Holy Spirit was showing by this that the way into the Most Holy Place had not yet been disclosed as long as the first tabernacle was still standing.”
Now we’re talking about covenants. A covenant as we said before is an agreement made between two parties, each holding some sort of promise towards the other. It’s like signing a lease with your landlord. You promise to pay him so much a month for a year’s stay, and he you get the privilege of living on his premises. And if anyone should break the lease, they were liable and would be held responsible. In the same way, God made a covenant with his people Israel when he first adopted them as his own people. They were to obey his commands and he was to be their God and protector. But the covenant didn’t work at all. It kept getting broken. Why? Was there anything wrong with the covenant itself? The author of Hebrews tells us No! Nothing was wrong with the covenant itself. He says that what was wrong was with the people themselves. (8:7-8) They kept breaking the covenant. And every time they broke the lease, God kept throwing them out of his property and onto the street. But even after they had tasted some divine discipline and returned to God with repentant hearts, the cycle would repeat itself. So what did God do?
In his great love for them, he promised them a New Covenant, a Better one, with Better Promises. It’s like signing a new lease, but a lease almost without conditions and with unlimited privileges. It was a hope to look for that he gave them through their prophets. (Jeremiah 31:31-34) He wanted them to look forward to the day when he would sign a new covenant with them. The author of Hebrews reminds them of that New Covenant. (8:8-12) It is a beautiful covenant, if they looked closely at the fine print. He would no longer turn away from them because of their unfaithfulness to him, as he had always done under the Old Covenant. He would never again turn them out or away when they were unfaithful to him. He would forever be faithfully bound to them. In this New Covenant, he would write his laws on their hearts and minds so that they would willingly and joyfully follow them. He would be their God and they would come to know him personally and commune with him. Mostly, he would forgive their sins— all their sins— and remember them no more. This New Covenant would be a covenant of grace.
Now the apostle is reminding them, and for a good reason, that since the New Covenant has already been put into effect, it was time for them to completely let go of the Old Covenant. Look at verse 13. “By calling this covenant ‘new,’ he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear.” Here we’re dealing with stubborn people who understood the value of the Christian faith and of the New Covenant which our Lord Jesus instigated, but who stubbornly still held on to some aspects of the Old Covenant. Why did they do that? To understand why, let me explain something to you first. All Biblical covenants, whether Old or New are aimed at worship. A covenant involves a mediator, a high priest to perform ceremonies and a sanctuary— and all in order to come into God’s presence— that is, to represent the people before God. That’s worship! The covenant therefore, reflects a ministry represented by a high priest and performed in a sanctuary. The Old Covenant reflected the ministry of the high priest at the sanctuary here on earth (whether it is in the desert or in the temple in Jerusalem), while the New Covenant reflected the ministry of our high priest Lord Jesus in the sanctuary in heaven. Now, going back to the question of why did some of them stubbornly still hold on to some of the aspects of the Old Covenant? Because, everything about that sanctuary was beautiful. Because, everything about that ministry of worship was powerful. Because, they were beautiful and powerful symbols of worship! And that’s not something to let go of so easily.
Here in this passage, especially in verse 13, the apostle is really trying to help them see the fading glory of the Old Covenant in relation to the New Covenant. But he’s having a hard time because the Old Covenant is steeped in imagery and symbolism, something they could see and touch— something beautiful and powerful— while the New Covenant, with its sanctuary and High Priest were heavenly and unseen! We know how powerful symbols are especially in our generation. What’s a double yellow arch stand for? What’s a green mermaid with a crown and a star over her head? What’s a t stand for if someone wears it around their neck? Symbols and images are powerful and magnetic. They’re difficult to abandon for the hidden and the unseen.
Look at verse 13 again. “By calling this covenant ‘new,’ he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear.” God himself slowly faded the Old Covenant away. For example, we really have no idea how beautifully majestic was Solomon’s temple in all its glory. What temple was built later after the exiles returned to Jerusalem couldn’t compare with the glory of the original. And certainly Herod’s temple built even later couldn’t compare either. In fact it was still being rebuilt when it was destroyed by the Romans. The temple of worship was glorious at some point. But the Lord God himself saw to it that the old glory slowly fade to make way for the New Covenant which he promised. Even Jesus our Lord warned that not one stone will remain standing of this temple. (Matthew 24:2) But we must understand that before the temple and sanctuary was destroyed, it’s hard to ignore what was inside the temple and sanctuary. In truth it was supposedly a replica of the sanctuary in heaven. The ceremony of worship was beyond anything you and I could possibly imagine. But as much as we are able to imagine, we need to try so that we have an idea of their earthly glory. This way, we can also see what they symbolize in heaven. Then, we ought to compare their glory, reject the one and embrace the other. Why is that necessary? Because your spiritual life shouldn’t depend on outward visible things no matter how wonderfully beautiful and powerful they may be. If it does, that is, if you need visible aids in order to tweak your spiritual life, then your spiritual life is weak and miserable. That’s pathetic! And that’s what many people’s spiritual life is like, dependant, weak, fickle. When God’s people were weak and helpless, God gave them these symbols and images. But they were only shadows of things in heaven, and not the reality. And finally when Jesus came, there was no need for symbols and images for worship any more. “We live by faith, not by sight” as the apostle said. (2 Corinthians 5:7)
But here let’s see what the sanctuary looked like to the godly Jew with a centuries-long history of glory. And after that lets contemplate how 11 men received the new covenant in a shabby unimpressive Upper Room where a piece of bread and a cup of wine were passed around the table in a sort of beauty that only heavens can appreciate along with those who can see Jesus sitting on his throne. But for those who do not see him, no wonder they need to erect cathedrals and build steeples that penetrate to the heavens and dress up in magnificent robes and run the gauntlet of ceremony to the impress of the masses.
Read verses 1-5. “Now the first covenant had regulations for worship and also an earthly sanctuary. A tabernacle was set up. In its first room were the lampstand, the table and the consecrated bread; this was called the Holy Place. Behind the second curtain was a room called the Most Holy Place, which had the golden altar of incense and the gold-covered ark of the covenant. This ark contained the gold jar of manna, Aaron’s staff that had budded, and the stone tablets of the covenant. Above the ark were the cherubim of the Glory, overshadowing the atonement cover. But we cannot discuss these things in detail now.”
Here’s the layout of the sanctuary. It was like an oval space about forty five feet long by fifteen wide, outlined with a continuous wall. The walls made of acacia wood were fifteen feet high and covered in pure gold. The entrance doorway, facing east, was composed of five golden pillars and draped with a rich heavy curtain. Thirty feet away and in, another curtain separated the holy place from the most holy place. The ceiling was also covered with curtain material and hung all the way down on either side over the ornamented wooden beams that made up the walls. Now that’s a crude description of the tabernacle sanctuary. Within this tabernacle there were items, the very things that we said earlier were beautiful symbols of what’s in the heavenly sanctuary. There were also some items without the sanctuary as well. We need to talk about them too before we move into the sanctuary because they too are of utmost importance.
First was the bronze altar. It was in the courtyard. That’s why the author doesn’t mention it. But we have to talk about it. This is where the blood sacrifices were made. The priests made those sacrifices day after day on this altar. We can’t imagine how terrible it must have been for them to do so. Priests in white robes sacrificing animals all day long with blood splattered all over them. The stench of the breasts and of the blood was sickly. But it was their duty to sacrifice these animals for the forgiveness of sins of those who brought them. A priest’s work was difficult and bloody. But it reminded the whole community of people that God is a Holy God and that sins need to be atoned for if anyone is to come into God’s presence. This altar where blood never stopped flowing throughout the generations of sacrifice and atonement is symbolic of the Lord Jesus and his shed righteous blood. While the Jews needed to come to this altar day after day with sacrifice after sacrifice, a symbol of God’s holiness and their sinfulness, we can come to the cross of our Lord Jesus as well moment by moment, a symbol of God’s grace and mercy to unworthy sinners. How beautiful is the cross of our Lord Jesus!
Next to the bronze altar was the bronze basin for the washing. The priests needed to wash themselves before entering the holy place because they too were sinful and needed to be purified before they came into the presence of the Lord. It was an act of worship. Where the bronze altar of sacrifice symbolizes the one time sacrifice of our Lord Jesus on the cross, the bronze basin symbolizes the daily washing of our feet from the stains of sin of pilgrimage to the kingdom. Jesus our Lord alluded to that when he washed his disciples’ feet on the night of his suffering. (John 13)
As the priest entered the Holy Place, there he saw the Lampstand and the Consecrated Bread of the presence. The lampstand was truly a magnificent piece of artwork beyond our ability to describe it. How wonderfully it speaks of Christ our Lord. It’s texture made of beaten gold as if every hammer stroke that shaped it tells of Jesus’ bruising and suffering for us. The six lesser candle sticks with the seventh tall one in the middle is almost symbolic of the church in union with its majestic Head Christ shining light on a dark world. Yet He alone is the light of the world. (John 8:12) When the world was dying in the darkness of sin and men suffered at the hands of evil men, the Lord came as a beacon of light to shine grace and truth on our lives, on our homes, on our way, driving out that darkness and letting the light of his word in. That lampstand still shines from heaven on anyone who looks beyond the darkness of this world in faithful trust of the Lord Jesus.
Look at verse 2. In that Holy place, the priest also saw the Consecrated Bread of the presence. What he saw was an array of twelve loaves of fine flour, sprinkled with sweet smelling frankincense. The bread was eaten only by the priests when it was replaced every seven days. The bread symbolized Christ because Christ is the sweet bread of God, the bread that came from God and was given by God for our satisfaction. (John 6:51) Nothing can satisfy our spiritual hunger. Most people are spiritually hungry— starving. Their souls are shriveled. They work hard to make something in life, to find some meaning. Some even use even religion (some even the Christian religion) as a crutch to cover up their spiritual hunger, that they are depraved and derelict. But Jesus understood our human hunger problem. He told us: “Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” (John 6:27) Then he said: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world…. unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” (John 6:51, 53) Anyone who truly wants to satisfy the hunger of their soul for real life needs to eat of the bread of heaven. This is not a joke. Actually, it is a matter of life or death. [It’s an invitation to take his words to heart: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. (John 6:54-57)]
Look at verses 3-4. The author here talks about the golden altar of incense as being inside the most holy place, although it was not. But it is associated with the most holy place because it is so closely related to worship. The incense used here is very specially made for the purpose of worship before the Lord. Incense represented the prayers that went up to the throne of God. And how wonderful it is that this very altar of incense symbolizes our precious Christ who stands even now in heaven before the throne of God praying for us as our High Priest. He gathers our poor pathetic prayers— our feeble prayers— our weak efforts at prayers— our groans and moans— our sighs— our cries and crying outs— our pouring out our hearts— and whatever else we offer in our breath of prayer— this precious Lord the High Priest of heaven gathers them up and offers them to our Father on our behalf— on your behalf and mine. Not a single sigh is lost or goes unheard and is unanswered because He who hears us is faithful.
Besides the golden altar of incense the priest sees the gold covered ark of the covenant. Four feet six inches long by two feet eight inches wide and deep, it was covered with gold. Look at verse 5. Its lid of pure gold called the mercy seat, or atonement cover had cherubic figures kneeling with their eyes fixed on the blood stained lid or atonement cover. Within this ark rested the stone tablets on which the ten commandments were written with the finger of God, as well as the manna and Aaron’s rod that had budded. The law is holy righteous and good, symbolic of Christ who the same fulfilled it to its letter and thereby justified us through faith in him. The manna also symbolizes Christ our daily bread who is the author and sustainer of our lives. He sustains our lives as we partake of him. And the rod that budded symbolizes Christ who in his resurrection gives us the hope to rise to life eternal and to reenter the kingdom of God.
Look at verses 6-10. In these verses the apostle talks about the last, and perhaps the most important item in the tabernacle which is the curtain that separated the holy place from the Most Holy Place. Let me remind you again that all this is a matter of worship still. The people of God were forbidden entrance to the Holy Place— behind the first curtain— only the priests were allowed in there! And the priests themselves were forbidden entrance into the Most Holy Place— behind the second curtain— only the High Priest was allowed entrance there! And for him it was only once a year on the Day Of Atonement, and never without blood. (7) He himself needed to offer blood for his own sins as he entered into the Holy presence of God to worship once a year on behalf of the people of God who were forbidden entrance. All this tells us that all these ceremonies were absolutely necessary for fellowship and for worshiping God. At the same time, all these ceremonies weren’t enough at all! Look at verse 8. The apostle tells us what the Holy Spirit was teaching them. He was teaching them that the curtain separating the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place was for a time in place, to prevent access to God— that the way to God was still shut. That too was symbolic of Christ as well. It symbolized how impossible it was for anyone to come worship God. It symbolized the need for another way into the presence of God. It symbolized the need for another covenant, a New one! It symbolizes Christ because he alone is the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the father except through him. (John 14:6) “A time is coming” said Jesus, “and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.” (John 4:23-24) He was talking about a kind of worship that is not ceremonial like this (10) but a kind of worship that is of the heart, a worship made possible only through him.
Look at the difference between ceremony and true worship that is in and through Christ. Verse 9 explains it perfectly. “This is an illustration for the present time, indicating that the gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper.” Ceremony cannot clear your conscience of sin nor of the effects nor consequences of sin. Sin needs blood to wash it away. That’s the truth and the reality of things. Conscience is a powerful thing that unless we kill it, it will bother us with guilt and shame till the day we die. What can clear my conscience from all that passes through my mind and heart every day? It needs cleansing. It needs clearing because unless my conscience is clear I cannot worship God nor come into his presence properly. I would be like the dirty beggar who stands at the door too ashamed to come into the clean house. That’s the story of too many people. But blood of Jesus alone can clear the conscience. The blood of the Lord spilled on Calvary can clear the conscience. Jesus died and spilled his blood so that I can worship God with a clear conscience. When I have sinned, Jesus’ blood is powerful to cleanse me in repentance as I come to him in faith and seek his forgiving counsel. That’s beautiful worship in the presence of God in spirit and in truth. Only Jesus can do this for me and for you.
Symbols are beautiful and powerful but sometimes they blind us to the reality which is invisible. Today Christian services and worship seem too visible and full of images that steal away the glory from God. Beautiful buildings, wonderful ceremonies, meticulous rituals, spectacular paraphernalia and costumes, all this take away from the beauty of a simple humble upper room fellowship where a covenant was sealed in the body and blood of our Lord Jesus, whose glory now, though unseen far outweighs anything we see. The only symbol we should hold on to is a heavenly one, one that only the Lord can imprint on our hearts to help us fix our hearts on him and him alone. God bless you.