Believe Jesus: The Real Thing
The key question this passage poses is: How can we know we’re worshipping what we should be worshipping as we should be worshipping?
Hebrews 9 takes us through an exploration of the symbolic – the way in which symbols are real and have real significance, but are not the real thing – they are meant to point us to the real. Worship for the people of Israel was rich with these symbols:
Central to worship was the tabernacle, a two room tent; or a tent within a tent. The inner tent was constructed of scarlet, blue and purple linen and goat hair curtains, with a covering of tanned rams’ and goat skins. This was surrounded by a larger ‘tent’, constructed of curtains of coloured linen, hung from silver hooks.
In the outer tent (‘the holy place’) were:
• The Lampstand: with 7 branches, representing the light of God, and the continuing witness of the covenant community.
• The Table and Bread of the Presence: 12 loaves, one for each tribe; representing God’s provision and presence with his people.
Inside the inner tent (‘the most holy place’) were the most precious items of Israel’s history:
• The Altar of incense: Sacrifice was always accompanied by the burning of incense – a sweet smell over the stink of sacrifice, representing the way the stink of our sin needs to be covered over.
• The Ark of the Covenant: which was a terrifying object because God’s presence can be dangerous. This symbolised that coming to God is a fearful thing.
• An urn containing manna: A sign of God’s faithfulness – keeping them alive in the wilderness – worship is of the faithful one.
• Aaron’s staff: Which was a witness against the grumbling of Israel (Num 17) – Aaron was chosen ahead of all the other tribal leaders and true worship is to worship the one who is sovereign, against whom there cannot be complaint.
• The tablets of the covenant: The Ten Commandments, ‘Written by God’ – true worship is according to God’s standard.
• Cherubim: Mighty, winged angels – divine guards who formed God’s throne, because God is dangerous, and surrounded by glory.
• The Mercy seat: A slab of gold, three and half feet by two feet, on top of the ark, overshadowed by the wings of the cherubim – the place of atonement, which was needed because there can be no worship unless sin is dealt with. It is only by the mercy of God that forgiveness can be obtained.
This was a lot of gold! A gold seat, gold ark, gold cherubim, gold candlestick, gold altar of incense – a lot of gold!
None of these things are God; but all were symbols pointing to God. The symbols were real but not the real – they point to the real so are really important!
So the tent was set up, set up right for right worship. The action then happened via the priests. The ordinary priests stayed in the holy place, with only the High Priest having an ‘access all areas’ pass into the most holy place; and this for only one day each year – the Day of Atonement (Lev 16). On this day the high priest went into the inner room first with the blood of a bull and then back in again with the blood of a goat.
All this preparation and attention to detail had one end in view, that the people of God should experience the forgiveness of God, because without forgiveness there can be no true worship. However, the forgiveness obtained at the tabernacle was not blanket forgiveness. The ritual of sacrifice dealt with the unintentional sins of the people (v7). Probably most of the stuff we get wrong is unintentional, but there is also deliberate sin, and there was no atonement for these defiant “sins of the high hand” (Num 15:30,31). This meant that even all the symbolism and ritual of the tabernacle could not, “perfect the conscience of the worshipper” (v9).
So, what’s the take home here? Why is it written for us?
The seriousness of what took place in the tabernacle demonstrates that we can’t just walk in on God – real worship of the true God can’t be casual. But even with all its seriousness, the tabernacle was insufficient. In the end it was only an illustration of the way that men can meet with God. All the symbols could achieve was “Regulations for the body” (v10). Our bodies lead us into sin, and away from worship. So, in order to worship we have to get control of the body – something the tabernacle did to the highest degree. But it still wasn’t enough! What this demonstrates is the insufficiency of all human religion – self-help won’t help you! All human self-effort to cleanse the conscience is ultimately futile.
If there is a ‘true’, a ‘real’ than we need to worship truly but it is impossible for us to do this by human effort. What is needed is a ‘reformation’ – a new order, a different dimension, a whole new way of seeing. We need forgiveness that deals not only with our sins of omission but our sins of commission – our deliberate rebellion as well as our ‘accidental’ sins. Jesus is this new order! He is the light, the bread, the incense, the staff, the ark, the manna, the word, the glory! He is the true – the real! Grasping him is to grasp the real! He is the real thing! Through him complete forgiveness is made possible, and our worship of the true God is made truly acceptable. Hallelujah!