“Now the first covenant also had regulations for ministry and an earthly sanctuary. For a tabernacle was set up, and in the first room, which is called the holy place, were the lampstand, the table, and the presentation loaves. Behind the second curtain was a tent called the most holy place. It had the gold altar of incense and the ark of the covenant, covered with gold on all sides, in which was a gold jar containing the manna, Aaron’s staff that budded, and the tablets of the covenant. The cherubim of glory were above the ark overshadowing the mercy seat. It is not possible to speak about these things in detail right now. With these things prepared like this, the priests enter the first room repeatedly, performing their ministry. But the high priest alone enters the second room, and he does that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offers for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance. The Holy Spirit was making it clear that the way into the most holy place had not yet been disclosed while the first tabernacle was still standing. This is a symbol for the present time, during which gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the worship’s conscience. They are physical regulations and only deal with food, drink, and various washings imposed until the time of the new order.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Have you ever done something you thought was necessary, but later discovered was a waste of time? It’s hard to imagine something more frustrating than that. But what if this thing you were doing actually was necessary at the time. It was even good. You needed to be doing that then. But it wasn’t good enough for your ultimate aim. It was a placeholder. There was something more to get there, but it wasn’t time to learn about that part just yet. This is what the author of Hebrews here describes the old covenant to be. It did something good and important and necessary, but there was more. The more is for us. Let’s talk about it.
Let me start with what I’ve had to say several times as we’ve gotten into the heart of the letter here: I know this is a huge block of text relative to what I normally include for you. I’ll just say now that over chapter 9 and 10 we’ll have a couple more big blocks like this. Same goes for chapter 11. The author includes a lot of detail here that itself isn’t so applicable, but it is important to give context to the points that are. I don’t want you to miss that context, so I’m including all of it.
I still remember the first day of my first semester senior chemistry class, Descriptive Inorganic Chemistry (DINC, for short). The professor sat down in front of the class and telling us, “This class will teach you why everything else you learned in gen-chem was wrong.” That wasn’t true, of course, but we were going to learn why it was all basic in a way that the fuller picture would seem to render it unnecessary and even wrong. What we were doing was learning a great deal more detail that filled in gaps we hadn’t even known existed to that point. That’s one of the things a greater and more detailed knowledge can do for a person. It can make you look back on what you knew before and see it in such a light that on its own it seems incorrect in this bigger context. It wasn’t incorrect as a matter of factual accuracy; it was simply a limited picture relative to the whole.
This is kind of how the author of Hebrews here describes the relationship of the old covenant to the new. In this big block of text, he is offering a pretty detailed description of the inner workings of the old covenant. It was based around the tabernacle, the tent whose instructions Moses was given in detail while on Mount Sinai for forty days with the Lord. He came down and said, “Here’s what we’re going to build and here’s what it’s furnishings are going to look like.” Then he went on to describe, at God’s direction, how it was going to function and what the various people involved in its functioning were going to do.
The whole process seems almost hopelessly complex and detailed to read about it. I’m sure it went fairly smoothly once it was all up and running, but there was always a lot of pomp and pageantry to it. I’ve been listening to the podcast from the Bible Project recently, and this year they have been working their way through the Torah. The last several episodes have all been a step-by-step journey through Leviticus where a lot of this detail was laid out for the people. It has been really helpful to explain the whys and hows of the various aspects of worship for the people of Israel of which the author of Hebrews gives us a snapshot here. If you want to listen, you can check it out here or on whatever podcast app you use.
I don’t think I really need to explain much about the description the author gives here of the workings of the covenant. You can see that for yourself, and it’s pretty self-explanatory. There are just two notes toward the end of this passage that I want to direct our attention. The first is the second-to-last sentence. The offerings the people were bringing as a part of the Law offered an important covering of sin, but the long-term goal of full reconciliation with God was never on the table for the people of Israel. In His grace toward them, He accepted the sacrifices as a substitute for their own lives when they had sinned, so they didn’t have to die themselves, but these sacrifices never actually removed the sin. They never “perfected the worshiper’s conscience.” The Law was good, but like we talked about earlier this week, it was the beta version to the new covenant’s full release. At the time, it was doing something good and important. But through the lens of the new covenant, we can see clearly that it was always insufficient to the task for which it was serving as a placeholder of sorts. The time hadn’t come for the real thing, and so they used what they were given until then.
The second thing is the very last sentence of the passage. “They are physical regulations and only deal with food, drink, and various washings imposed until the time of the new order.” This just doubles down on my point. The old covenant dealt with the outside only. It never got to the heart of the matter which was our heart. It cleaned us up and made us all nice and shiny, so God didn’t wipe us out, but it was never more than a stopgap measure. It couldn’t deal with the deeper matter. This is why, as we saw yesterday in that long quote from Jeremiah, that God started fairly early on promising the people a new covenant was coming. This new covenant was not going to deal only with the outside guilt of sin. It was going to result in God’s law being placed in the peoples’ hearts. This would effect a change from the inside out that made us actually fit for the kingdom and not just pigs with lipstick whom the farmer happened to love with a special affection.
To come back once again to a point we’ve been making over and over again on this journey: What we live with now is a new covenant between God and ourselves through Jesus. The old covenant is gone. It was fulfilled as Jesus promised He would do, but then it was replaced. We cannot hope to get any functioning out of the old covenant or its various aspects. They won’t save us. They won’t put us in a better place with God. They won’t even really point us in the right direction. Using our gem-chem books was not going to help us understand DINC when we struggled with it. The reverse was true. We understand the old covenant better because of the new, not the other way around. We can see its worth, but also why the new is so much better. You are a new covenant person. Live like it.