Hebrews 9:1-10

David H. Linden   University Presbyterian Church, Las Cruces, NM  USA   (revised August 2011)


The writer of Hebrews turns now to the earthly sanctuary and the service of the priests who ministered there. He begins by speaking of these things as part of the first covenant, now obsolete (8:13), valid only before Christ appeared as the ultimate Priest. Within the man-made sanctuary, certain practices by God’s design were parallel to the ministry of Christ. 


The high priest of Israel entered that sanctuary on earth with the blood of an animal. Hebrews is now approaching its climax.

Just as the blood of animals was offered to God, the Lord Jesus as our Priest and Sacrifice entered the Presence of God by means of the blood He shed for His people. That will be the subject of much of the remainder of chapter 9. Both the place and the activity are of great interest to the writer. The sanctuary and blood foreshadow a different sanctuary and blood, namely the blood of Christ shed on earth which avails in the sanctuary of heaven. This is the theme Hebrews 9 is moving to, but first it must lay a groundwork by giving some detail of the place and the worship activity under the ordained priests of Israel, especially the high priest. The place is described in vv.1-5 and the priestly functions in vv.6-10.    


Hebrews 9:1-10 is an introduction to “the blood of Christ.” Earlier it was phrased that “He offered up Himself” (7:27). From here on, in some way, the blood of Christ will be mentioned in the remaining chapters of Hebrews. Christ became flesh and blood according to 2:14, i.e., He became human. The expression “the blood of Christ” waits till Hebrews 9. Expressing the work of Christ as the shedding of Christ’s blood is one of the graphic and deliberate ways God brings to our minds the sacrifice and priestly work of our Savior.


V.5 makes clear that Hebrews passes over much it could have said on the typology of OT worship. The limited mention in Hebrews 9 was to bring our attention to Christ and His work by means of shadows (8:5 & 10:1). As the shadow of a hand gives information of one without being one, the priests and ritual of the Old Testament prepare the human mind to understand the things of God. The deliberate parallel of activity on earth in an obsolete sanctuary, and in heaven in the real one, helps us to grasp the work of the Real Priest in the Presence of God. 



9:1   In Greek the word covenant is absent in what we translate as “the first covenant”. No doubt “the first” of 9:1 refers to the previous verse (8:13) where “the first” is the old covenant.


If the old covenant is obsolete, then the regulations in it are as well, yet their value to us is to increase our understanding of Christ as our priest. If we had no other model of priesthood to compare to, we would have only the work of Christ but no illustration to help us understand it. 9:1 refers to the tabernacle in the desert prior to entering the Promised Land. Hebrews never speaks directly of the temple in Jerusalem. In 8:4,5 it does refer to activity there in which Jesus did not participate, and immediately returns to speak of the tabernacle Moses built. Since the sanctuary on earth was patterned after the heavenly (8:5), we have in the physical construction and required service, things that are an intended analogy of the service of Christ. 


9:2-5   The Physical Structure and Contents   The tabernacle in the desert had two compartments:

·         The Holy Place which many priests (9:6) entered. It had a lampstand and a table with bread.

·         The Most Holy Place which only the high priest (9:7) entered. In it was the ark of the covenant and associated with it was the incense altar. [See below Appendix E: The Location of the Incense Altar.]


It is odd to us, reading a book 2000 years old and not having all the resources they had, to learn that not only were the two stone tablets of the law in that covenant box, but Aaron’s rod and the pot of manna were there also.[1] The OT does not mention these last two items as contents of the ark of the covenant.[2] Hebrews does not give attention to what significance each object or activity in the tabernacle may have.


The Cherubim of the Glory   This expression in 9:5 refers to cherubim (or cherubs) who served as attendants of the throne of God. The Lord was enthroned between the cherubim (Psalm 80:1). Note carefully Exodus 25:17-22; cherubim were even in the coverings above (Exodus 26:1) and in the veil between the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place (Exodus 26:31). God is surrounded by cherubim. His Presence over the Ark of the Covenant was between them. This is repeated in the OT and stated once in the New. After Adam’s rebellion, cherubim kept Adam & Eve from re-entering the Garden of Eden to eat of the tree of life. The Lord assigned them to be guards of His glory. Ezekiel 28:14 refers to Satan as an anointed (i.e., chosen & privileged) guardian cherub. In Ezekiel 8-11 when the Lord left His Temple because of the idolatry in it, the vision was of living cherubim leaving with Him. They had special proximity to the Lord. They are indeed cherubim of the Glory. The early part of Hebrews steers people away from the worship of angels by making a vigorous defense that the Son has a more excellent Name than angels. Cherubim were given a unique presence with the Lord, but were never seated with Him. In the Most Holy Place, God alone sat between the most intimidating of angels, whose eyes looked down at the covenant box. 


Overshadowing the Atonement Cover   That box had in it two tables of the law – two covenant documents, God’s copy and Israel’s. That was a law Israel and each of its citizens had broken. If God could have any favor towards His sinful people and restrain His angels of judgment, there must be satisfaction for sin. Atoning blood was sprinkled on the cover and in front of that box. Before the eyes of God’s “flames of fire” (1:7) blood covered the broken law in the box below, and so judgment was averted. The shadows of tabernacle worship were a kind of parable to illustrate the service of Christ Who would go into the Presence of God on our behalf. The setting of the Lord of Glory (1 Corinthians 2:8) between the cherubim is part of the way God shows access, atonement, propitiation, and a welcome into the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the Living God. There in His Presence at this moment are righteous men already made perfect (12:22-24). The sprinkled blood has been acknowledged in heaven as the accomplishment of the cross. Hebrews is eager that we should see how crucial the sprinkled blood is to our salvation. God prepared an elaborate parable for us to help us understand.  



9:6-10   In the old administration, the matter of limited access to the Lord was demonstrated by curtains that served as barriers. Priests were all from one tribe, yet not all men in that tribe were priests, only sons of Aaron. Of all the priests, there was only one living high priest, and he could enter the Most Holy Place only once a year. The Holy Spirit shows us by this that access to God was denied, so that it could only be in a different way. They could see the curtain that prevented access. Only by Christ would the door be opened for His people into the Presence of the Lord.  


As long as that tabernacle was still standing, it gave a double message:


  1. God’s Presence  The Lord said, “… have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them.” (Exodus 25:8; see also in Exodus 29:22-26 the phrase before the Lord).   
  2. God’s Remoteness  If the high priest entered at any other than the appointed time (Leviticus 16:2), he would die. If he went without blood, or improperly dressed, he would die. If he failed to have the smoke of the incense hide the cover of the atonement box from his sight, he would die (Leviticus 16:13). 


The Holy One was indeed among His sinful people, yet He held them back. The death of Christ would change this. On the day Jesus died, God tore in two the separating curtain (Matthew 27:51). That alone shows that the Levitical order had been superseded. The way is open because of the offering of the body of Christ (10:19-22). God only accepts people in Christ, but He accepts all He has joined to Christ. The Bible makes being called to and joined to Christ a high privilege! (1 Corinthians 1:9; 2 Thessalonians 2:13,14, Ephesians 1:18). Access to the Father is limited to Christ as the way (John 14:6).


Did God’s people have access to God before the time of Christ?   Yes they did, or else they would not be able to pray. In Psalm 100:2 (and Psalm 95:2), they came before Him, but only to His courts, never entering His Holy Place. By the limitations of the tabernacle, the Holy Spirit was showing that the way into the Most Holy Place had not yet been opened as long as the first tabernacle was still standing (9:8). 


The new covenant promises to us the Spirit’s work to produce obedience, yet the new covenant was not inaugurated until the time of Christ. Does this mean there was no activity of the Holy Spirit bringing obedience to OT saints? There were many godly persons in OT times, because God produced new covenant blessings beyond what He had promised, blessings of an age still future to them, just as He does for us (6:5). See especially Psalm 51:10.


Access to God was never a benefit brought to God’s people by the shadows and types of the OT. The blessings came through Christ in advance of His coming. In the time of Hebrews, some dared to reject Christ. By faith in what their priests could not really do, they hoped in vain that shadows would bring access to God, cleansing and acceptance. The writer of Hebrews wanted that curtain to show that God had never allowed His people access to Himself through rituals of animal blood. God can be approached only through Christ. By a curtain preventing access, the Lord prepared for the gospel truth that access to God is only by the blood of Christ.   


Here in 9:7 Hebrews begins to describe sacrifice using the word blood. This is a very important feature of Biblical truth. Hebrews will oscillate between the blood of animals and the blood of Christ. The Lord had arranged a system of sacrifices with the frequent bloodshed of innocent victims in order to bring attention to the literal bloodshed of Jesus on the cross. It is one thing for God to act to save. It is also essential for us that God should interpret His saving actions, and this He has done in words. His ordained rituals prepared His people for the ultimate reality. Hundreds of years of bloodshed pointed to the death of Jesus on a Friday afternoon. The people knew that the high priest never went into the Presence of God without taking the required blood, which he offered (the same verb for offer is used in 9:14,25,28 & 10:12). A vital truth was being illustrated. To this day Jews will call the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) their most holy day, while so far, most in the Jewish community refuse the true meaning of that day. The Lord will change this! (Romans 11:11-32).


What about temples for the worship of God today?   God in His wisdom in times past used a building of His design for a beneficial purpose before the time of Christ. He has now spoken in His Son. One day He ruined His earthy sanctuary. He tore the curtain showing thereby that access to Him was by means of Christ. Many varieties of temple worship beckon worshippers today. These temples uniformly appeal to the eye. They have ceremonies that interact in some way with a deity associated with that place. Jesus said the day had come in His coming when worship in spirit and truth would no longer be tied to any place (John 4:21-24), including the place where at one time God had set His Holy Presence. 


Yet today, rails in Roman churches (noted for their splendor) hold back worshippers from a supposed altar where Christ is offered again by a mortal priest. Faith is diverted from the Bread sent down from heaven (John 6:33-35) to a piece of bread in the hands of a man. Mormons have impressive temples that only their faithful may enter, and only if they pay. Hindus and Buddhists construct awesome colorful temples, where beautiful things of earth: flowers, flames, candles and incense, with lavish use of red and gold, create an aura of awe. Prayers are offered before visible objects representing gods or a man who never claimed to be one (Buddha). By all these things, the human heart in its desire to create its own forms of worship departs from Christ. All things that beckon and promise access to God apart from Christ are occultic, demonic, deceitful, and unauthorized. False religion tends to mimic some of the things the Bible teaches are now obsolete – things that have served their purpose and have been discarded.


9:9,10   The contrast is between the external and the internal. Some rituals “cleansed” a man of ceremonial uncleanness (9:13), such as defilement for touching a dead body. This man declared “clean” could enter the congregation again, but such a ritual did not cleanse the conscience. It did not bring forgiveness or righteousness. It did illustrate that purging sin can only come from a blood sacrifice. That cleansing will be accomplished by Christ. OT rituals had a purpose; they were an instrument of the Lord to teach the gospel. Their usefulness, limited as it was, was temporary and would serve only till the time the new order came. It came when Jesus made His offering on the cross, and the curtain of the sanctuary on earth below and heaven above was opened. Jesus, having opened the way for us (6:19,20) entered into the heavenly sanctuary and sat down at the right hand of God.  


Appendix E:   Sins Committed in Ignorance (9:7)


The blood the high priest offered was only for sins committed in ignorance (9:7). This may make us wonder if we ever sin deliberately (and we do) if there is any offering for such sin. If one’s hope in Christ is that every sin we have ever committed must be a certain kind of sin, i.e., a kind of sin we do not know is really sin !! – then we really have no hope of salvation in Christ. Our time in history is one where people care little about righteousness and whether anything is sinful. This is a serious sign of danger. This attitude causes us not to wonder what “sins committed in ignorance” really means. Some presume that God forgives all sin, a confusion that leaves no room for apostasy and reprobation. Some sins are not atoned for (Isaiah 22:14). Some sins will never be forgiven (Mark 3:29) and that is announced concerning certain sinners in advance of their death. (The old slogan: “while there is life there is hope,” does not really apply to all!)


This theme comes up in Hebrews in a number of ways. The high priest in 5:1-3 offers sacrifices for sins of ignorance and waywardness. Sin may be from weakness, not only simple ignorance, as in the case of the disciples in Mark 14:37-40. It may even be rebellion (Leviticus 16:16). There is a qualitative difference between those sins and the sin of the people in 3:7-4:11 who were hard-hearted, or between the sins of 5:1-3 and the sin of Judas. Judas’ policy of sin was an unrepentant greed so aggravated he would betray the Son of Man for money with a kiss in spite of all warning to him. The eleven disciples were weak. Peter denied his Lord; Judas was apostate. The offerings in Israel were never for those in defiant rejection God’s authority. The priests’ offerings were for the weak whose sins overpowered them. Those who worry about this, should be comforted by finding in their hearts repentance and sorrow for sin. Apostates lack such godly sorrow (2 Corinthians 7:10).


A very helpful passage to show the difference between unintentional sin and defiant sin is Numbers 15:22-31. Expressions like “sins of ignorance” or “sins done unintentionally” appears to take on the sense of a class of sin. The way to understand a kind of sin is to see it in terms of its opposite. Hebrews is not saying that we have no Savior because of the sin that so easily entangles us (12:1). Hebrews does say there is no sacrifice for the sins of the man in 10:26 who deliberately rejects the truth of Christ he once held. One cannot be a Christ-confessor and then a Christ-rejecter, and still have hope of repenting (6:4-6). God will not give it! The apostate has no claim on the sacrifice for sins made on the cross. No sacrifice remains for him (10:26); no sacrifice for that kind of sin has been provided. Every man is a fool who chooses to live in sin and presumes that the blood of Christ will cover him. Those who assume God forgives all sin, and that the atonement covers every sin ever committed, argue from a posture not found in the Bible. God will forgive every sinner who repents, but He does not grant repentance to every sinner (6:4-6; Acts 11:18). He also hardens men in their defiance (Romans 9:16-18; Romans 1:28-32) and lets them go on to judgment.


There is great comfort that Paul, the chief of sinners, could be saved, but his opposition to Christ was without the knowledge of Who Jesus is. He was shown mercy because he acted in ignorance (1 Timothy 1:12-17). He called Jesus “Lord” while still uncertain of His identity, wondering in that moment who the God of Israel really was (Acts 9:4,5). Paul was shown grace and a mercy not available to apostates. (In light of these things, we pray about our sins with the words of Psalm 19:12,13.) There is sin not done in ignorance or weakness, sin so deliberate that the apostle declines to pray for the person who commits such it (1 John 5:16,17).


That the Bible makes this distinction concerning sin is clearly present in Scripture. Hebrews warns that the sacrifice of Christ does not cover every kind of transgression. His priestly offering atones for all of the sins of His elect for sure, but not the sins of apostates.


But anyone who sins defiantly, whether native-born or alien, blasphemes the LORD, and that person must be cut off from his people. Because he has despised the LORD's word and broken his commands, that person must surely be cut off; his guilt remains on him (Numbers 15:30,31).

Appendix F:   The Location of the Incense Altar in 9:3,4


When the priest entered the Holy Place he would see the Table, the Lampstand, and the Gold Altar of Incense in that room. Hebrews 9:4 seems to say that the altar of incense was on the wrong side of the curtain, that it was actually inside the Most Holy Place. Though it does not exactly say that, this appears to be an error in the Bible, and a variety of attempts have been made to resolve it. 


Before I offer a solution that may well be wrong, I have this advice. When we hear a person say something that does not make sense to us, it helps to be able to ask what he meant. We do not have that opportunity with the writer of Hebrews. If we had, we might be surprised at a simple solution. We should humble ourselves and say that we just do not know the answer to some of our questions. 


When the tabernacle was set up (Hebrews 9:2), the Altar of Incense was in the Holy Place in front of the curtain that is before the Ark of the Testimony (Exodus 30:6). This position could be stated as being simply “in front of the Ark of the Testimony” (Exodus 40:5). When in use, its incense would “burn regularly before the LORD” (Exodus 30:8). Unlike the lampstand and the table, the golden altar (Exodus 30:10) and its incense (Exodus 30:36) were both declared to be most holy. It had a higher purpose that the other items in the Holy Place. If one stood and looked around the Holy Place, he would say that that room had the Altar of Incense, the Lampstand and the Table. It is very simple to the eye.


Some attempt to solve the problem by saying 9:4 does not really speak of the Altar of Incense in the Most Holy Place, but rather the censer associated with it. They seek to honor God’s infallible word in this way, and I respect that, but the censer was not the altar. Others point out that Hebrews could be quoting from a different text – and there is a text that supports the wording of Hebrews 9:4 – but that defense implies that the writer quoted accurately an erroneous version of the facts. In that explanation, Hebrews is not guilty of inventing an error but of repeating it. Others argue that in the Temple in Solomon’s day, the incense altar was in the Most Holy Place (1 Kings 6:22). In 1 Kings 6, the altar of incense was clearly associated with the inner sanctuary, but that text does not say it was located within it. That fact ought to affect how we view the purpose of that altar. There is no contradiction with the description of the tabernacle of Moses’ time (8:5) when “the tabernacle was set up” (9:2). In Luke 1:11 the altar of incense was not behind the curtain, because Zechariah, who was not high priest, served at that altar.    


My suggestion is that the tabernacle should also be considered in two parts, not by what is visible upon entering but by its purpose. In one half, there are items directly related to the ritual activity of the worship of the Lord: the Ark and its covering, and then in front of the ark, the altar of incense. The other items had more relation to the priests, a light for them to see and the table with bread for them to eat. Therefore it is not surprising that the altar of incense was described as part of the Most Holy Place in Solomon’s Temple because it is so often spoken of as related to the ark. The NIV renders 1 Kings 6:22 as “the altar that belonged to the inner sanctuary”. The altar of incense was closer to the ark of the covenant than any other item of furniture.


Text Box: 				    Table 
Ark of the      Altar of
            X   X •
Covenant.      Incense.          








The veil (or curtain)                             Suggested imaginary line. When serving at the incense altar, the priest standing at the dot [•] in the diagram, is in the half of the tabernacle connected to the worship if God. He faced the Lord Who was in the Most Holy Place. The other items of the Holy Place would be behind him. [Diagram, not to scale]


Looking from the angle of function, the Lampstand was to give light so the priests could see; the Table held bread for the priests to eat. The Ark held the covenant tablets and was the location of the Lord in the midst of His people. The Altar was where incense was offered to the Lord; the priest faced the Lord when he offered there. That altar was in the half of the tabernacle where things used for God were located. Thus it is not a surprise to read in 1 Kings 6:22 that this altar belonged to the inner sanctuary. For Hebrews 9:4 to say that the Most Holy Place had the golden altar of incense may simply be saying that this altar belonged to the Most Holy Place and in this sense “had” it, not contained it, but had it by association and purpose. I suggest that the tantalizing statement is not a matter of location but connection. The priest had no confusion whose altar it was or to whom the incense was being offered, as he offered incense there facing the ark. It was in the same half as the ark of the covenant, so it is quite natural from one perspective to speak of them together. What I suggest is not what the camera would view, but perhaps how the priest was likely to “view” things. He knew very well when he approached that altar that he was close to and facing the Holy of Holies, even though the veil covering the ark marked the boundary of the first and second room and determined how far he could go.   


Ordinarily for us to say a room has something, and some item of furniture is named, we mean that that room contains the item. But this is not always so; a courtroom may have guards, yet these guards and a desk for them may stand outside. Their function has to do with the courtroom, while their location could be outside it. The Greek verb “echein” (i.e., “to have”) has sufficient flexibility to it to allow this interpretation.



[1] The OT does not say that the ark contained the gold jar of manna as we read in 9:4. Before Israel learned there was to be an ark of the covenant, Exodus 16:31-35 had ordered that a jar of manna should be placed before the Lord for the generations to come. 

[2] This should not concern us unless we had in the OT some word that all information about the OT is contained there and nowhere else. The Bible does not make such a claim. In 2 Timothy 3:8 two men of Moses’ time are named, yet their names do not appear in the OT! All the information we need about God and our relationship to Him is found in Scripture and nowhere else. We glean much related information from archaeology and other historical records that are not part of Scripture. The OT refers to other documents that are not part of Scripture itself, as in 2 Chronicles 20:34. Thus, the NT may give details not mentioned in the OT. That the tabernacle also was sprinkled with blood (9:21) is something the writer of Hebrews knew, but it not mentioned in the OT.