Hebrews 9 – The Divine in the Details

Hebrews 9 Bible with Endangered Species Dark Forest Mint Chocolate

Today’s ChocolateEndangered Species Forest Mint Dark Chocolate

Today’s PassageHebrews 9

Where to begin? Hebrews 9 contains several verses of interest, but let’s look at the context first. This chapter starts with a summary of the tabernacle’s inner and outer layout, making the point that Jesus Christ in a spiritual sense entered the Holy of Holies through his death, in order to atone for his people’s sins once and for all. Thus, the writer reasons, Christ mediates a new covenant on the basis of his own shed blood. Throughout the whole chapter, there’s a theme of the earthly vs. the heavenly, visible vs. invisible, man-made vs. divine, flesh vs. spirit, which the writer brings to the forefront to conclude the chapter. Bam, summary complete, let’s get down to the details.

But not all of the details, of course. The author of Hebrews is assuming some familiarity with the later chapters of Exodus, when he remarks about the tabernacle’s construction and paraphernalia, “[O]f these things we cannot now speak in detail” (5). It might be a simple matter for me to link to Exodus 25, or even to copy and paste the entire text of it into this entry within the space of a few seconds–hoo boy, I bet you’d love that–but in the first century, writers didn’t have the benefit of the printing press or moveable type. To reproduce any portion of the text of the Torah, one would have to copy it by hand, letter for letter. It’s pretty clear why the author of Hebrews opts for a quick summary.

It’s also pretty clear that the author of Hebrews considers the prescriptions of the Law to be primarily, if not entirely, bodily in nature. Concerning the Law, he writes, “Accordingly both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make the worshiper perfect in conscience, since they relate only to food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until a time of reformation” (9-10). It’s that “earthly vs. heavenly” theme again: regulation of behavior and the external body, not the internal soul. The rules only go so far. Human beings, time after time committing evil and revealing their darkness, need something that can actually perfect them.

And that thing is the second covenant, with its mediator, Jesus Christ. In fact, after a fashion, the second covenant is about the first covenant. The author of Hebrews explains, “For this reason [Christ] is the mediator of a new covenant, so that, since a death has taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were committed under the first covenant, those who have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance” (15). The second covenant is the larger covenant; it encompasses and provides for our failure to keep the first. As a result, human beings can obtain redemption for their sins under the covenant of Law and receive an everlasting inheritance.

And here’s the point of all this tabernacle talk: the high priest entering the Holy of Holies once a year and making offerings is a symbol of Christ entering heaven to offer his own shed blood and sacrifice on our behalf. The author of Hebrews writes, “For Christ did not enter a holy place made with hands, a mere copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us” (24). He only has to do it once, because his sacrifice is the real deal, not a copy or shadow. It’s a heavenly act of service rather than an earthly one.

And that’s all well and good. But in the middle of the chapter, there’s this incredibly weird section where out of the blue the author of Hebrews insists that covenants require death. He states: “For where a covenant is, there must of necessity be the death of the one who made it. For a covenant is valid only when men are dead, for it is never in force while the one who made it lives” (16-17). What in the name of what?

A covenant requires the one who made it to die? It is never in force while the one who made it lives? What the crud is he talking about? What agreement or contract, in the Old Testament or otherwise, ever required one of the parties involved to die before it took effect? Wouldn’t that defeat the purpose of making an agreement in the first place? If anyone can fill me in on what this means or what I’m missing, it’d be much appreciated, because I’m baffled, and I need to move on to the next chapter. After all, of these things we cannot now speak in detail.

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