These central chapters of the letter can seem heavy going, and we may want to skip on to more familiar stuff from 10:19 onwards, but here is the meat of the book – and it is wonderfully nourishing if we make the effort to understand it. In the last few studies last term we saw how Jesus is the Better Priest, who is the mediator of a Better Covenant, but both those truths rest on the fact that he offered a Better Sacrifice – the perfect sacrifice. That’s what these next two studies are about. This is a long-ish chapter: please don’t try and cover every detail, there is not time for that. I suggest you have in mind to focus especially on vv.11-15 and vv.23-28.
The Jewish readers of this letter had not lived in Israel, so their knowledge of the Temple came not from seeing it but rather from what they had read in the Law, hence the writer describes the Tabernacle, which predates the building of the Temple. He reminds them of the basic layout – two compartments: a front one, called the Holy Place, where only priests were allowed to go, and a back one, called the Most Holy Place, where only the High Priest could enter, and then only once a year on the Day of Atonement. Two key points are being made about worship under the Old Covenant: the lack of access and the lack of cleansing. The restricted access showed that “the way into the Most Holy Place had not yet been disclosed” (v.8), and that in turn was an indication that consciences were not truly cleansed (v.9) – the cleansing was merely outward and ceremonial (v.10). “Conscience” in this chapter refers to our whole interior self, our hearts we might say, not simply to our moral compass.
The superiority of Christ’s priestly ministry is made clear because of where he entered (heaven itself, “the greater and more perfect tabernacle”), what he offered (his own blood as opposed to merely the blood of goats and bulls), the frequency (“once for all”, never needing to be repeated because he “obtained eternal redemption”), and the effect (making us not just “outwardly clean” but cleansing our consciences so that we can now draw near to God). His death secured “eternal redemption” (v.12) – a word which speaks of a price paid (“a ransom”, ie his own life offered in sacrifice) and freedom secured, freedom from sin (v.15) and freedom for service (v.14). The phrase in v.14 “through the eternal Spirit” is not easy to make sense of: certainly it shows that the whole Trinity was involved on Good Friday, but it may be because priests were anointed for ministry and Jesus’ death was the priestly ministry for which he was anointed.
The chief point is to explain why Jesus had to die. In part it is because a covenant (or will, it is the same word) is only brought into effect through a death. For him to be the “mediator of a new covenant”, or for an “inheritance” to be paid (v.15), there needed to be a death. Moreover the only effective cleansing agent for sin is blood (v.22).
Similar points are made as in vv.11-15 above: a better sanctuary, better blood, and better results. The effectiveness of his sacrifice is made clear in three ways, each linked to Christ appearing. In the present, he appears now in heaven “for us” (v.24) – because he is there representing us, his acceptance is the guarantee of our acceptance. In the past he “appeared” (v.26) to offer the perfect sacrifice – one which need not be offered “again and again” but was offered “once for all”, showing that he has effectively done away with our sin by his death (and after all it is nonsense to think of this sacrifice being offered more than once, as the writer says, for we can die only once). And then thirdly, in the future “he will appear a second time” (v.28): there might perhaps be an allusion to the Day of Atonement, when the people would wait anxiously for the High Priest to reappear from behind the curtain and so know with relief that his sacrifice was accepted. For us Christ’s resurrection is proof that his sacrifice was accepted, but we too wait for his appearing for only when he returns will we know in the fullest sense all that his death has won.