The Tabernacle and the Time of Reformation

…until the time of reformation.

Hebrews 9:10

The tabernacle was very important to the Old Testament Israelites.  God knew this, and he wanted to show the first century Hebrew Christians who were being pressured to go back into Judaism that the holy place offered by Christianity was far superior to that of the old law.  Thus, chapter 9 of the book of Hebrews makes a comparison between the old and the new.

The author points out that “even the first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly place of holiness” (9:1), referring to the tabernacle, or tent, which Old Testament Israel constructed at Sinai and carried with them as they wandered through the wilderness under Moses’ leadership.  He then describes the tent, bringing out how within the first section – the Holy Place — were “the lampstand and the table and the bread of the Presence” (9:2; cf. Exodus 25:23-40; 26:35; 1 Samuel 21:3-6; Matthew 12:3-4).  Behind a curtain was “a second section called the Most Holy Place,” in which was “the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, in which was a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron’s staff that budded,” as well as “the tablets of the covenant,” i.e., the Ten Commandments (9:4; cf. Exodus 16:32-34; 25:10-16; 30:1-10; Leviticus 16:12; Numbers 17:1-11; Deuteronomy 10:1-5).  Above the ark were “the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat” (9:5; cf. Exodus 25:17-22).

Not wanting to go into more detail about what was in the tabernacle (9:5), the author then describes how the Old Testament priests would enter the Holy Place and “perform their ritual duties” (9:6), such as offering incense (Exodus 30:7-8) or trimming the lamps on the lampstand (Exodus 27:20-21).  However, only once a year would the high priest go into the Most Holy Place, “and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people” (9:7; cf. Leviticus 16).

What was the reason behind these priestly ritualistic duties?  The Lord inspired the author to then write: “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)” (9:8).  In other words, the rituals performed by the Old Testament priests in the tabernacle were symbolic “for the present age,” i.e., the Christian age in which all of us live today and have been for the past two thousand years.  As Hebrews already pointed out, what we read of in the Old Testament foreshadowed spiritual realities in the New Testament (Hebrews 8:4-5; 10:1; cf. Colossians 2:16-17). The duties performed by the priests symbolized what Christ has done in reality, as the writer would soon bring out (Hebrews 9:11-12, 24-26).

What the Old Testament priests did symbolized the blessings currently enjoyed by Christians rather than literally provide these blessings because “the way into the holy places (was) not yet opened,” as the Holy Spirit indicated (9:8).  The sacrifices offered by the high priests annually in the Most Holy Place were limited in what they could do.  For instance, they could not “perfect the conscience of the worshiper” (9:9).  As Hebrews would later point out, “…it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (10:4).  Only the sacrifice of the sinless life of Christ on that cross could “purify our conscience from dead works” (9:14).

This is why the worship and sacrifices of those Old Testament priests “(dealt) only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation” (9:10).  Just as the Old Testament tabernacle was physical in nature, so also the worship done within its walls focused on the physical – “food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body” – that which impacted the earthly side of man, such as our senses which would be affected by the smell of the incense, the taste of the bread, the touch of the washings.  All of this would take place “until the time of reformation.”  In other words, changes in worship would be made when the old covenant was taken away and replaced with Christ’s new covenant (Hebrews 8:6-13).  Now, worship under Christianity is spiritual in nature (John 4:21-24).  It focuses on the heart (cf. Ephesians 5:19).

Are we worshiping God “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24)?