Sanctuary, priesthood, sacrifice, and covenant in the book of Hebrews

The author claims that any discussion of the heavenly sanctuary must include a discussion of Hebrews, the New Testament book that deals most extensively with the concept.

Kim Papaioannou, PhD, pastors in Cyprus


Any discussion of the heavenly sanctuary must include a discussion of Hebrews, the New Testament book that deals most extensively with the concept. Hebrews discusses the perfect high priestly ministry of Jesus in heaven and contrasts it with the inadequate, temporary ministry of human priests. In the process, it highlights the efficacy of the death of Jesus as a sacrifice in contrast to the inefficacy of the sacrifices of animals. Closely related is the theme of covenant. This study will discuss these concepts that form the axis on which the whole epistle operates.

The outline of Hebrews is fairly clearly delineated: (a) 1:1–4, Christ’s superiority to the prophets; (b) 1:5–2:18, Christ’s superiority to the angels; (c) 3:1–4:13, Christ’s superiority to Moses; (d) 4:14–7:28, Christ’s superiority to Aaron; 8:1–10:18, the superiority of the new covenant; (e) 10:19–12:29, exhortation; and (f) 13:1–25, conclusion.

The problem

Daniel Wallace observes that Hebrews was written in part “to warn Jewish Christians against apostasy to Judaism.”1 Such an assertion confuses more than clarifies. Early Christians were often Jews or God fearers (Acts 13:16; 16:14; 17:17), who continued to worship in synagogues (Acts 13:5; 18:4, 26; 19:8; James 2:2; Rev. 2:9); used the
Old Testament as their Scripture (1 Tim. 5:18; 2 Tim. 3:16; James 2:8); kept the Sabbath (Matt. 24:20; Luke 23:56; Acts 13:42–44), the Ten Commandments (1 Cor. 7:19; James 2:10, 11), and other Jewish laws (1 Cor. 9:9); met regularly in the temple (Acts 2:46); and were considered a sect of Judaism (Acts 24:5).2 

The real danger was not apostasy to Judaism, but a return to the temple and its sacrificial ritual, as will be seen below. Such a danger is not difficult to understand. The sanctuary/temple had been a focus of Israel’s faith for 1,500 years, ever since Moses first built the tabernacle in the wilderness.

Yet, for the writer of Hebrews, any attraction to the earthly temple services now appeared inappropriate. The death and resurrection of Jesus had opened new realities. Shadow had met reality, and somehow, what had seemed so foundational had now become defunct.

The sanctuary context

The inadequacy of the earthly sanctuary and the superiority of Christ are most fully developed in the central part of the epistle. However, even in the introduction and exhortation/conclusion, sanctuary language abounds.For example, the author begins by declaring the superiority of the Son over the prophets. One thing that entitles Him to sit at the right hand of the Father is the fact that He has made “purification [katharismon] for sins” (1:3).4 The Greek term appears primarily in ceremonial purification contexts (e.g.
Exod. 29:36; 30:10; Lev. 14:32; 15:13; 1 Chron. 23:28; Neh. 12:45; Job 7:21; Mark 1:44; Luke 2:22; 5:14; John 2:6).5 

In his discussion of the superiority of Christ over the angels, the author again uses sanctuary language. In 1:14 he uses the adjective “ministering” (leitourgika) and in 1:7 the noun “ministers” (leitourgous) with reference to angels. Both words have strong sanctuary overtones (adjective: Exod. 31:10; 39:1; Num. 4:12, 26; 7:5; 2 Chron. 24:14; noun: Ezra 7:24; Neh. 10:39; Isa. 61:6; Heb. 8:2).

The exhortation and conclusion sections also abound with sanctuary language. The exhortation section begins, “We have the confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus” (10:19). The “holy places” refer to the heavenly sanctuary and the blood of Jesus to His sacrificial offering
on the cross.

Other sanctuary references include the “veil” (10:20, KJV); the “house of God” (10:21); maybe the heavenly city to which the patriarchs awaited (11:10, 16); and the contrast between the presence of God on Mount Sinai and Mount Zion on the one hand and the heavenly Jerusalem (12:18–24) on the other, which is the seat of the heavenly throne of God surrounded by innumer­able angels (12:22), where the saints have been perfected (12:23) and which is the location for the ministration of a new and higher covenant based on the blood of Jesus (12:24).

Thus, sanctuary language not only forms the core argument of Hebrews but also appears in the introduction and exhortations/conclusion, enveloping the main argument into a sanctuary con­text. The problem Hebrews addresses is not a lapse into Judaism; rather, how Jewish Christians—once attached to the Jerusalem temple and its ser­vices—should instead look toward the heavenly sanctuary and the priestly ministration of Jesus.

Earthly sanctuary, heavenly sanctuary

The contrast between the earthly sanctuary and the heavenly sanctu­ary is developed mostly in Hebrews 8 and 9. The heavenly sanctuary was not built with human hands (9:11, ou cheiropoiētou), but by the Lord, and therefore is “not of this creation” (9:11). By contrast, the earthly was built by man (8:2; 9:24). As such, the heavenly is “greater and more perfect” (9:11).

The heavenly is called tēs skēnēs tēs alēthinēs, “the true tent” (8:2). When an articular noun is qualified by another articular genitive noun, as is the case here, the use is monadic, meaning only one true sanctuary exists, the one in heaven. This implies that the earthly was not true in the fullest sense of the word but rather a shadow and transient reality.

This thought is further emphasized by the use of five words to describe the earthly: hypodeigma (8:5), skia (8:5), kosmikon (9:1), parabolē (9:9), and antitypa (9:24).

Hypodeigma signifies a copy, type, or example. Most English translations prefer “copy” (e.g., ESV, NAB, NASB, NIV), in the sense that the sanctuary was built according to the model shown to Moses (8:5). “Example” also serves well, indicating specific purpose and limited duration.

Skia means “shadow” and car­ries two meanings. The earthly was a shadow in that it replicated the heav­enly original (8:5, “ ‘See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain’ ”); it was also a shadow in the sense that it was transient.

Kosmikon derives from the noun “kosmos,” “world,” and signifies that which is of this world and is therefore imperfect and limited as opposed to the perfect heavenly sanctuary.

Parabolē is a “parable,” “symbol” (e.g., NASB, NJB), “figure” (KJV), or “illustration” (NIV). Parabolē is a com­pound word and literally means “to place something next to something else”7 for example, as an illustration, or to explain something. In that sense, the heavenly sanctuary is the original and the earthly a parallel illustration to demonstrate on earth how God operates in heaven.

Antitypa means “a copy, counter­part, or figure pointing to something.”8

All five words highlight the earthly sanctuary’s shadowy and transient nature. The fact that the author uses five different words to indicate the transient nature of the earthly sanctu­ary seems to indicate that he wants to leave no doubt in the mind of the reader on this score.

Not only the sanctuary but its apart­ments and furnishings were modeled on the heavenly. Hebrews 8:5 says that Moses was told to “make everything according to the pattern shown” (cf. Exod. 25:8–27:21).

Given their transient nature, the whole earthly sanctuary and its services were to be of significance only “until the time of reformation [diorthōseōs]” (9:10). The word diorthōseōs signifies the establishment of a new order.9 The earthly sanctuary and its services were to be of significance until the new order, inaugurated by the sacrifice of Jesus, and the anointing of the heavenly sanc­tuary (cf. Dan. 9:24, where the anointing of a “most holy place,” the sanctuary in heaven, is depicted towards the close of the 70 weeks).

Earthly priesthood, heavenly priesthood

The sanctuary requires a priestly ministry. In the earthly sanctuary priests served from the tribe of Levi (Heb. 5:4; 7:5, 9, 11). As humans, they were “beset with weakness” (5:2), since they were also sinful and required to offer sacrifices for their own sins just like they did for the rest of the people (5:3). Earthly priests ministered regu­larly in the Holy Place (9:6), and the high priest could minister in the Most Holy only once a year, and this not without blood (9:7), lest he die (Lev. 16:2).

By contrast, in the heavenly sanctu­ary the High Priest is Jesus Christ (Heb. 2:17). He is merciful and faithful, can provide true atonement, and attained this exalted position through His incar­nation (2:17), during which He suffered and was tempted like other humans but remained without sin (4:15; 7:26). While human priests were sons of Aaron, Jesus is the Son of God (5:5). And while human high priests barely dared to go into the shadowy, typological, throne of God in the earthly sanctuary once a year, Jesus sat next to the real, heavenly throne of God (8:1).

Jesus is a high priest after the order of Melchizedek (5:6, 10; 6:20; 7:11, 15, 17). This reference underscores two important facts. First, the Melchizedek priesthood was distinct from and higher than the Levitical priesthood in that Levi, through his ancestor, Abraham, paid tithe to Melchizedek, acknowledging his superiority (Heb. 7:9, 10). Second, the author declares that Melchizedek was “without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life” (7:3). This does not indicate that he had none, but rather that he is a symbol of the heavenly Son who had none.10

Earthly sacrifices and the sacrifice of Jesus

In the earthly sanctuary, sacrifices of animals (5:1) were offered on a daily basis (5:3). Indeed, sacrifices were the main task to which priests were appointed (8:3). But like the sanctuary itself, the sacrifices were shadowy (10:1). The blood of animals cannot cleanse sin (10:4, 11), and the fact that they were constantly repeated indicated that the problem of sin had not found full resolution (10:1–3).

Compare such a situation with the sacrifice of Jesus, which is superior, was offered once, and is sufficient to deal with the problem of sin (9:12). “By a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (10:14). In light of Jesus’ sacrifice, God promises not to remember human sin any longer (10:17). This assurance of forgiveness offers believers the privilege of approaching the throne of God boldly (4:16).

Old covenant, new covenant

We now come to a dimension of the sanctuary often not understood clearly— the concept of covenant. Most Christians understand the old and new covenants as a reference to law and grace: the old covenant was one of law whereby, to be saved, a person had to keep the Ten Commandments and other laws; the new covenant is one of grace, where salvation is offered freely through faith in the saving sacrifice of Jesus.

Such an outlook is unscriptural. The law did indeed play an important part in Old Testament times, just as the law plays now. The Ten Commandments defined for all time the moral frame­work of God’s governance, and other laws in the Pentateuch were a practi­cal application of the principles of the Ten, in the historical context of Israel in the wilderness. But the Bible nowhere teaches that the means of salvation differs during Old Testament times and in the New. Salvation always comes by grace and never by works. The sacrificial system of the Old Testament pointed to the real sacrifice of Jesus. The lifestyle expected of the redeemed people of God, in both Old and New Testament times, is governed by the same moral law.

The sacrifice of Jesus does not make us immune to the need for obedience. We should hear the words of Hebrews about law and the new covenant: “I [God] will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts” (8:10). This was indeed the promise God had given to His people of old: “ ‘I [God] will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts’ ” (Jer. 31:33).

The new covenant does not envis­age an abrogation, or even a change, of law but only a change of location from the tablets of stone to the heart. Paul further informs this new covenant transition by making the parallel “tab­lets of stone,” “tablets of human hearts” (2 Cor. 3:3), indicating that what is writ­ten in the heart under the new covenant is the Ten Commandments.

The notion of the Decalogue written on the heart is indeed found in the Old Testament (Pss. 37:31; 40:8; Isa. 51:7), and the writer of Hebrews anticipates that all who believe in Jesus can experi­ence it in fullness.

The only change from the old to the new covenant is in terms of the handling of sin. Covenant is about relationships, with marriage being the most common type of covenant in the Bible and used as a symbol of God’s relationship to His people.

As such, a covenant between God and humanity is all about bringing a holy God into a close relationship with sinful humanity. But since God’s holiness and human sin cannot coexist (Isa. 59:2; Heb. 12:29), the covenant had to find a way to deal with human sinfulness. This was done in the old covenant using the blood of animals. The covenant was inaugurated with blood (9:18). The book of the covenant and the people of the covenant (9:19), as well as the sanctuary and its utensils (9:21), were sprinkled with it; purifica­tion was attained with blood (9:22).

Hebrews 8:7 declares the old cov­enant faulty or blameworthy (8:7), not because there was anything wrong with it, but because the people were sinful (8:8, 9). And since the blood of the animals on which the old covenant was established cannot cleanse sin (10:4, 11), the old covenant could not really bring a holy God and sinful humanity into full covenant union. The problem was with human sin, not the covenant. But the old covenant could not resolve this problem adequately and there­fore was inadequate, and therefore, shadowy and transient, just like its sanctuary and priesthood.

By contrast, as noted above, the blood of the sacrifice of Jesus does cleanse sin effectively, and as such can establish a union between God and humanity on a firm foundation. Because of this, the author makes the following, truly amazing statement: “Therefore he [Jesus] is the mediator of a new covenant . . . since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant” (9:15; emphasis added).

What the author says is that the sins committed during the Old Testament (OT) were forgiven not through animal sacrifices, but through the sacrifice of Jesus to which the OT sacrifices pointed. The forgiveness Abraham, Moses, David, and the rest of the saints of the OT received was only given in anticipation of the sacrifice of Jesus. They, too, were forgiven under the blood of the new covenant. This is why part of the promise of the new covenant was that God would not remember the sins of His people any longer (8:12; 10:17). The new covenant has replaced the ineffective blood of animals with the purifying blood of Jesus.

The difference between the old and new covenants is not grace versus law but the grace of the shadows versus the grace of the heavenly realities. John 1:16 makes a similar point: “from his [Jesus’] fullness we have all received, grace upon grace,” literally, “grace in exchange for grace” (charin anti charitos). The shadowy grace of the ani­mal sacrifices under the old covenant was set aside for the heavenly based sacrifice-of-Jesus reality of grace under the new covenant.

About to vanish away

The old covenant encapsulated all that was shadowy and insufficient: earthly sanctuary, earthly sinful priest­hood, earthly inadequate sacrifices. These could not provide forgiveness and salvation. To those tempted to cling to these, Hebrews offers a twofold warning.

First, to cling to the shadows means to reject the reality. After highlighting the superiority of the high priesthood of Jesus over that of the Levitical in 5:1–14, Hebrews warns that those who “fall away” (6:6), presumably back to the shadows of old covenant ritual,11 “are crucifying once again the Son of God” (6:6) since in practice they are declaring His sacrifice insufficient.

In 13:10, the author declares that believers “have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat.” The altar that believers have refers to the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Of that altar, “those who serve in the tent,” meaning those who still cling to the earthly sanctuary ritual, “have no right to eat.” In other words, faith in the sacrifice of Jesus is incompatible with any participation in the rituals of the sanctuary of the old covenant.

Second, Hebrews declares that the old covenant with its earthly sanctuary/temple, priesthood, and sacrifice, was “obsolete” and “ready to vanish away” (8:13). This is no doubt a prophecy about the destruction of the Jerusalem temple and the physical end to sacri­fices and priestly ministry. The word translated “vanish away,” aphanismos, suggests not just destruction as hap­pened to the Jerusalem temple but something that disappears possibly never to appear again (e.g. Deut. 7:2; 1 Kings 13:34; Mic. 1:7).

Synopsis and synthesis

This study has developed the fol­lowing points. First, Hebrews centers in the ministry of the sanctuary and was addressed to believers who were in danger of falling back to the temple and its services. Hebrews needs to be under­stood from a distinctly ritual perspective.

Second, Hebrews has a very clear conception of a heavenly sanctuary, priesthood, and sacrifice, which are juxtaposed with the earthly sanctuary, priesthood, and sacrifices. While the latter were shadowy, imperfect, unable to deal with the problem of human sin, and only for a time, the former do so thoroughly and completely and are the only basis of salvation.

Third, for Hebrews, the contrast between the old and new covenants is not a contrast between grace and law but a contrast between grace and grace; the grace offered through the earthly sanctuary, priesthood, and sacrifice of the old, and the grace that flows from the heavenly sanctuary, priesthood, and sacrifice. The Ten Commandments remain constant throughout the transi­tion and, if anything, receive a higher position of authority in the new, by being placed in the heart of believers.

Lastly, participation in the earthly sanctuary ritual is incompatible with faith in Jesus. The earthly sanctuary ritual disappeared at the cross.

1 Daniel B. Wallace, “Hebrews: Introduction, Argument, and Outline,”, accessed December 17, 2013, https://bible .org/seriespage/hebrews-introduction-argument-and-outline.

2 Gerd Theissen says, “I want to claim that in all that He said, Jesus remained within the framework of Judaism.” A Theory of Primitive Christian Religion (London: SCM Press, 2003).

3 For a discussion of some of the ritual language, see the collection of papers in Gabriella Geraldini, ed., Hebrews: Contemporary Methods—New Insights (Leiden: Brill, 2005), 13–130.

4 All Scripture references are from the English Standard Version, unless otherwise noted.

5 Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1889), s.v. “katharismon.

6 George Wesley Buchanan observes that “In biblical terms, however, the word is almost always employed in relationship to the service of the priests in the temple.” To the Hebrews, The Anchor Bible, vol. 36 (New York: Doubleday, 1972), 19.

7 Cf. Liddell and Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, s.v.“parabolē”; Walter Bauer, Frederick W. Danker, William Arndt, F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press, 2000) (BDAG), s.v. “parabolē.”

8 BDAG, s.v. “antitypa.”

9 Cf. Ibid., s.v. “diorthōseōs.

10 See Ray C. Stedman, Hebrews, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1992), 47.

11 The word translated “fall away” is not the usual aphistamai/ apostasia (from whence “apostasy”) but the rare (only here) parapiptō. While the former means to “fall away,” parapiptō—a compound word made of the verb piptō, “to fall” and the preposition para, “next to”—may have the slightly different nuance that the falling is not just a falling off a path or way but a falling into something parallel or cognate.

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Kim Papaioannou, PhD, pastors in Cyprus


November 2014

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