Commentary on Hebrews 9:11-14
The broader section where this week’s reading is located, Hebrews 9, begins with a comparison of the earthly and heavenly spaces where cultic worship takes place. First, the author outlines the setup for the earthly tabernacle, starting with the setup of the tent itself, which the Israelites did each time they stopped during their time in the wilderness after they left Egypt. This is yet another way that the author draws his audience into that story.
The miraculous departure from Egypt and the subsequent journey are paradigmatic. They illustrate God’s patterns of deliverance and care alongside the need for God’s people to continue on in faith. By extension, as the author of Hebrews highlights in 3:7–19, those stories demonstrate that even when God works mightily in our midst, we still might not persevere.
Here though, in Hebrews 9, the author highlights the worship experience in the desert. In 9:1–10, the author describes the earthly worship space—as well as its “furniture” and other elements. In a sense, these items could be considered decorations, but they are by no means merely ornamental. Each item in the tabernacle was a part of the plans that YHWH gave to Moses, and each item symbolized something important about God and his relationship with his people.
Many interpreters come to different conclusions about what the author’s descriptions imply about the audience of Hebrews. Some think that the author’s level of detail implies that he is writing to an audience that does not know about the earthly tabernacle (and by extension the temple, which had various elements in common); while others interpret his relative selectiveness and brevity as an indication that his audience is not in need of an extended and/or systematic overview. (The latter seems more likely to me, but we cannot be certain!)
Either way, a thread among the elements featured is that they symbolize the work of God—and thus his presence—in the midst of the people. After walking through how each of these things is arranged, the author moves to a discussion of what took place in the tabernacle. The “ritual duties” that the priests carried out “continually” (9:6) likely refers to various activities, such as lighting the lamps, burning incense, and daily offerings on behalf of the people.1
In this verse, the priests are the ones performing these actions in the outer space, but in the next verse (9:7), the author highlights the work of the single high priest. Though the high priest had many distinctive responsibilities, the author of Hebrews focuses here on his work on the Day of Atonement (see, especially Leviticus 16). Once a year, he entered the Most Holy Place and made an offering “for himself and for the sins committed unintentionally for the people” (9:7). That limited experience once a year for one person represents the need for a more effective offering (9:8–10). These offerings were in place “until the time he comes to set things right” (9:10).
These verses that describe worship in the earthly tabernacle during the time of the first covenant (9:1–10) draw out what the author wants to contrast as he turns to the offering of Christ, “when [he came] as a high priest of the good things that have come” (9:11). But what are these “good things”? Many interpreters will note the textual variant in this verse. The text might have read “good things to come” (in other words, future good things) rather than “good things that have come” (in other words, present good things). But since the NRSV, and most interpreters, think that the good things are here and now, this is the understanding that we will follow too. So again, what are these good things?
This likely refers to something related to the “eternal redemption” at the end of 9:12. One objection to this view might be that “eternal redemption” is singular, while “good things” is plural; however, “redemption” is a broad concept in Hebrews that includes many benefits listed throughout the letter. But either way, the focus within this passage is on the effective cleansing—purification—and forgiveness of Christ’s offering.
These good things came about after Christ entered the heavenly Most Holy Place (9:11). Unlike the former priests, he does not bring animal blood; instead, he is able to serve as the worshipper, priest, and the willing sacrifice (9:12).
Hebrews 9:13 is one of the key places in Hebrews to see that the author does not depict the sacrifice of Christ solely in terms of the Day of Atonement. He begins there with his reference to the blood of “bulls and goats,” but then he turns his attention to the “red heifer” ritual described in Numbers 19:1–10, another type of sin offering. These rituals, the author of Hebrews says, “sanctify” the “ceremonially unclean.” Let us pause here for a moment and note that this means they had a valid effect. They sanctified them so that they were “outwardly clean”; they were clean to the degree that they could continue to participate in the worship of YHWH.
But those sacrifices didn’t “stick,” so to speak. They had to be repeated, and they were not able to cleanse the conscience. But the blood of Christ was. His offering is made to God through the eternal Spirit, and it enables us to serve the living God. The word “serve” here (from latreuō) is a word often used in conjunction with priestly service. Though Christ made the offering on our behalf, our service and offering of “sacrifices of praise” (13:15) continue on and on.
- Gareth Lee Cockerill, The Epistle to the Hebrews, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 379.