The author talks about the earthly sanctuaries and the author begins to describe its regulations of worship. The worship conducted in the tabernacle was inferior. The author describes it as “earthly.” It belonged to this world, in contrast with the heavenly sanctuary not made with hands.
The earthly tabernacle consisted of two compartments. They were separated by a veil or curtain. We can read about this in Exodus 26:33ff. Because they were separated the author speaks of them as two distinct tents. The first compartment was called “the Holy Place.” In it stood the7-branched lamp stand, the table, and the bread of the Presence. The bread of Presence (shewbread), if literally translated from the equivalent Hebrews term, means “bread of the face,” that is, bread set out in the Presence of God.
The second compartment, the innermost behind the veil, was especially hallowed. It was the holiest of all places and it could be entered only once a year. The author goes on to say that the inner chamber contained “the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant.” According to Exodus 30:6, the altar of incense was placed “before the veil” in order that the incense burned on it could penetrate the veil and cover or conceal the Divine Presence. Clearly, the altar and the ark were closely associated on the Day of Atonement.
The “Ark of the covenant” is described in more detail, since it was the most important article of furniture in the “Holy of Holies.” It was covered with gold and included the golden jar with manna, Aaron’s staff that miraculous sprouted, and the two stone tablets of the covenant. Later, when the temple was built, the ark contained only the stone tablets (1 Kings 8:9)
Above the ark were two “cherubim of glory” overshadowing the mercy seat. Their wings were spread out from each end of the lid of the ark, over the “mercy seat,” the place of atonement. There God, symbolically, met with His people through His priestly representatives. There, on the solemn Day of Atonement, the high priest sprinkled the blood of the sacrificed bull and then of the goat for the people’s sins.
The author describes the earthly holy place in some detail, but the point is the author is trying to prove to these Jewish Christians is that even with all its golden furnishings and glory, this could not compare with the sacrifice of Christ. From our point of view this may be obvious, but it for someone who was born a Jew, it was not so simple for them to understand. The author had to explain how temporary and imperfect the old arrangements were when seen from the divine perspective.
The Holy Spirit provided for the law and its ordinances of worship. As long as the outer tent was standing, “the way into the sanctuary” was not yet opened (v 8). It was the veil that separated the outer tent from the inner one, and it was the veil that was the reoccurring problem. It shut the people out and shut God in. Take away the veil, and immediately the way into God’s presence is open. In Matthew 27 we read about the death of Jesus. In this description of events we are told that the curtain or veil of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. This is an important fact to consider when talking about this chapter in Hebrews. The veil in the Old Testament is where the presence of God was. The people could not approach Him. This is why there was a separation of the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies. When Christ died, this veil was torn down and is symbolic of that veil being torn down, where a saved people could now approach God through accepting His Son as the Christ, the Son of the living God. At the point of His death, the Old Covenant way of sacrificing for sin was nailed to the cross. It was no longer an avenue of atoning for sins.
In verse 9 we learn that the outer tent was symbolic for the present age. Verse 10 teaches that the old externals were to last only “until the time of reformation.” No matter what the gifts and sacrifices were, they could not perfect the conscience of the worshipper.
The Levitical law gave specific instructions on what to eat and what to drink. There were many washings for the high priest, priests Levites, clothes and vessels. The point is they were instructed to wash many times all the time, over and over again, yet none of those washings made anyone clean.