No Access Under the Old Covenant

The writer understood that Jehovah intended the old covenant to emphasize His absolute holiness and unbending righteousness (2:2;10:27-31;12:18-21,29). While the first tabernacle stood and the old covenant remained in force, the way into the holy presence of God remained hidden, “. . .the way into the Most Holy Place had not yet been disclosed as long as the first tabernacle was still standing.” (9:8). Only the High Priest could enter the holy of holies. Even he could enter only once a year. Then, he dared not enter God’s presence without the blood of the sacrificial animal, which he offered first for his own sins and after that for the sins of the people.

But only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance (9:7).

The old covenant priests had to repeat this ritual year after year, signifying that God had not yet forgiven the sins for which they offered sacrifices. The day of atonement was a solemn reminder that guilty, covenant-breaking sinners could not approach a holy God.

10:1The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming–not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. 2 If it could, would they not have stopped being offered for the worshippers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. 3But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, 4because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.

The best the old covenant sacrifices could do was to provide ceremonial cleansing for sins that were committed unintentionally (9:7-10). They could formally restore the relationships that had been broken between a man and his God and a man and his neighbor, but they could not take away those sins that had caused the breach. F.F. Bruce writes, “Our author does not deny that such ritual cleansing was real and effective so far as it went. What he does deny is that cleansing of this kind could be of any use for the removal of inward and spiritual defilement” (Bruce , Commentary on Hebrews, p. 218).

One of the major points in which the old covenant was “weak and unprofitable” was its inability to quiet the nagging conscience. Under the old covenant, this was even true of the believer’s conscience. The word translated “conscience” or “consciousness” (syneidesis) occurs 32 times in the NT (5 times in this epistle). In general, it has reference to the awareness that a man possesses concerning the moral character of his actions. A person’s conscience tells him whether he is guilty or innocent. His thoughts accuse or perhaps defend him (Rom 2:15). The conscience, acting apart from Scripture, is not a safe guide since it may have been wrongly instructed. Yet, it is never safe for a person to disobey his conscience. If he should do so, he would be acting contrary to what he believed to be right or wrong.

The function of the old covenant was to awaken the sinner’s conscience to bear witness concerning his guiltiness before the Holy One of Israel. The tables of stone testified that the righteousness God requires is, to a sinner, merely an external code, not an internal, governing life principle. By instructing the Israelite’s conscience, the intricacies of the Mosaic code intensified his awareness both of the infinite holiness of God and the heinousness of his transgressions. It produced in him what our author calls “an evil conscience.” The heart of the sinner in Israel whose conscience God had awakened by the covenant of Sinai was so overwhelmed by a sense of unpardoned guilt that “drawing near to God” was inconceivable. The law could not produce acceptable worship or acceptable worshippers (10:1). John Brown has rightly understood this relationship between the sinner’s guilty conscience and his inability to draw near to God. He wrote,

“An evil conscience” is a conscience burdened and polluted with a sense of unpardoned guilt. A man who has offended God, and knows this, and who has no solid ground of hope of pardon, is totally unfit for affectionate fellowship with God. His mind is a stranger to confidence and love–It is full of jealousy, and fear, and dislike. The man must get rid of this “evil conscience” in order to his coming to God. (Brown, Hebrews, P. 461).
The old covenant believer could not enter God’s presence because sacrifices that could not satisfy God’s holy wrath for sin could not satisfy his conscience. God never intended for the Israelites to believe that they could appease His righteous anger by offering the blood of dumb and unwilling beasts. Until the thinking Israelite could see a correspondence between the sacrifice appointed and the awful predicament that existed because of his transgressions, his conscience could not be silenced. He had good reason to rejoice that God was pleased to continue to dwell in the camp of Israel and to receive the sacrifices that He had sovereignly appointed. Still, he knew that the sacrifice appointed did not have sufficient value to take away his sins. Consider F.F. Bruce’s excellent comment concerning the effect of the old covenant sacrificial system.

It was inevitable that the earlier law should be abrogated sooner or later; for all the impressive solemnity of the sacrificial ritual and the sacerdotal ministry, no real peace of conscience was procured thereby, no immediate access to God. That is not to say that faithful men and women in the Old Testament times did not enjoy peace of conscience and a sense of nearness to God; the Psalter provides evidence enough that they did. . . .But these experiences had nothing to do with the Levitical ritual or the Aaronic priesthood. The whole apparatus of worship associated with that ritual and priesthood was calculated rather to keep men at a distance from God than to bring them near (Bruce , Commentary on Hebrews, pp. 148 ff).

If the Levitical system could have met the needs of sinning Israelites, then it would have been the substance, not the shadow. There would have been no need for another priest as our author argues in 7:11. “If perfection could have been attained through the Levitical priesthood (for on the basis of it the Law was given to the people) why was there still need for another priest to come . . .?” The effect of the Levitical ceremonial system should have been to cause dissatisfied Israel to look for a sacrifice that could silence the nagging conscience by cancelling guilt completely. Instead, some to whom our author addressed this epistle had become infatuated with the “shadows” when they should have been enthralled by the “substance.”

We Draw Near to God
The Basis of Our Access

Christ, in the new covenant, brings a better hope “by which we draw near to God” (7:19). The entrance of our representative, our great priest, into the heavenly sanctuary assures believers in the new covenant era of access into God’s holy presence. It is the truth that believers have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens into God’s presence that forms the basis of our confidence and hope as we approach His holy throne (4:14-16;10:19-22). We may now enter God’s presence with confidence since our great priest has entered, now to appear in God’s presence for us (9:12;24).
One of the more important contrasts between Christ and the priests of the old covenant concerns this entrance into the Most Holy Place. There are at least four areas of contrast between them. There is a difference in the place that they entered. There is a difference in the means by which they entered it. There is a difference in the duration of their ministry in the Most Holy Place. There is a difference in the frequency of entrance. Consider these contrasts one by one.

The place that Christ entered is far superior to the place entered by the old covenant high priest. “They [the old covenant priests] serve in a sanctuary that is a copy and a shadow of what is in heaven” (8:5). But, in contrast to them, Christ entered and ministers in “the true tent set up by the Lord, not by man” (8:1).

9:11When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation . . .24For Christ did not enter a man-made sanctuary that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence.

The sanctuary in the wilderness was only a shadow and symbol of the heavenly holy place. Accordingly, the restoration effected by the blood of sacrifices offered in that sanctuary was only ceremonial and typical. In the divinely prescribed ceremonies of the old covenant, a typical priest offered a typical sacrifice in a typical sanctuary for those who as a nation were the typical people of God.
The means by which Christ entered the presence of God is better than the means by which the old covenant priests entered. Since He has entered the true, rather than the typical presence of God, it is necessary that He offer a sacrifice that truly cleanses. Ceremonial purification will not suffice. It is for this reason that Christ offers His own blood in the presence of God. Our author writes,

11When Christ came as high priest . . .12He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption. 13The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. 14How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God (9:11-14).

The sacrifice that the old covenant demanded, but was unable to provide, has come. Christ is that sacrifice! He has accomplished a true rather than a merely typical cleansing. No other sacrifice could satisfy the guilty conscience. Justice would frown and continue to pronounce the sacrifices of the old covenant insufficient to forgive sins and wash away the stain. But, as John Newton wrote, now that Christ has offered Himself as an all-sufficient sacrifice, “. . .justice smiles and asks no more.” In the same vein, Isaac Watts wrote,

Jesus, my great High Priest,
Offered his blood and died;
My guilty conscience seeks
No sacrifice beside.

In addition, there is a contrast between the duration of Christ’s ministry in the Most Holy Place and that of the old covenant priests. The Levitical priests had no resting place in the Most Holy Place in the wilderness tabernacle. They never finished their work. Once those priests had presented the blood of the sacrifice before the typical presence of God, it was necessary for them to leave. Once Jesus, our Great High Priest, entered the heavenly sanctuary, there was no need for Him to leave to offer another sacrifice. He sat down because He had finished His sacrificial work. We must be careful to distinguish, as does the writer of this epistle, between Christ’s work of oblation and His work of intercession. In His intercessory work, He continually displays the results of His finished work on behalf of believers. This does not mean that His work of sacrifice continues. He has completely accomplished His work of sacrifice.

. . .he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence. 25Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own. Then Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But now he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. When he appears again, it will not be to offer sacrifice for sins, but to bring (eschatological) salvation to His people (9:24-28).

Finally, notice the contrast between the frequency with which those priests entered, and Christ’s entrance once for all. Those priests were required to enter the Most Holy Place repeatedly to offer the same kind of ineffectual sacrifice they had offered the previous year. The repetition of these sacrifices speaks eloquently concerning their inferiority and insufficiency. If they had met the worshipper’s needs, they would have stopped being offered (10:1-4). Christ offered only one sacrifice because one was all that was needed to do the job. He does not need to enter again with the blood of a new sacrifice. He has done enough already. Therefore, He has entered once for all.

The Boldness of Our Access

The theme of “boldness” in the presence of God seems almost to have disappeared among those who love the truth of sovereign grace. Yet, if anyone has reason to approach God with confidence, it is we who understand these precious truths. Perhaps we have lost this confidence through an overreaction to the “easy believism” that has characterized evangelical Christianity for so long. We have seen so much false assurance and outright presumption on the part of many who give no evidence of saving faith that we have gone to the other extreme. Often, the focus of attention is no longer on Christ and His gracious dealings with believers but on the believer’s conformity to ten commandments, namely, the old covenant. Many give the impression that to be truly “spiritual,” a Christian must be a doleful doubter. Nothing could be further from the teaching of the New Testament Scriptures. We, as God’s people who love the grace of God, walk in character with our profession only when we boldly rejoice in the standing that we enjoy in Christ.
Our author not only writes about entering God’s holy presence; he encourages his readers to do so with boldness. The word translated “boldness” or “confidence” (parresia) occurs four times in this epistle (3:6;4:16;10:19,35). It has reference to the confidence with which believers may now approach the throne. Many older hymn-writers wrote about this theme. For example, Augustus Toplady wrote,

From whence this fear and unbelief?
Hast thou, O Father, put to grief
Thy spotless Son for me?
And will the righteous Judge of men
Condemn me for that debt of sin
Which, Lord, was charged on thee?

Complete atonement thou hast made,
And to the utmost farthing paid
Whate’er thy people owed;
How then can wrath on me take place,
If sheltered in thy righteousness,
And sprinkled with thy blood?

[If thou hast my discharge procured,
And freely in my room endured
The whole of wrath divine,
Payment God cannot twice demand,
First at my bleeding surety’s hand,
And then again at mine.]

Turn then my soul into thy rest;
The merits of thy great High Priest
Speak peace and liberty;
Trust in his efficacious blood,
Nor fear thy banishment from God,
Since Jesus died for thee.

Charles Wesley has, in several of his hymns, written even more explicitly on the subject of the believer’s boldness. In his hymn, “And Can it Be,” he wrote,

No condemnation now I dread.
Jesus and all in him is mine.
Alive in him, my living head,
And clothed in righteousness divine.
Bold, I approach the eternal throne
And claim the crown through Christ my own.

In another of his hymns, “Arise My Soul Arise,” he wrote, “. . .With confidence, I now draw nigh. . .and Father, Abba, Father cry.”

It is just this kind of confidence and assurance that our author intended the message of this epistle to produce in the hearts of those who had “fled for refuge to lay hold on the hope set before them.” This is also the intention of the other NT writers. Such confidence can never be the result of examining one’s heart in the light of the stone tables of the old covenant. God’s Spirit can only produce this sort of assurance as we continue to fix our thoughts on the apostle and high priest whom we confess (3:1). Any message that destroys the confidence of God’s people and removes the focus of our attention from Christ is at cross-purposes with the New Testament message. This is true even if those who preach it do so from the pure motives, seeking to bring the lives of God’s people into line with biblical truth.

Concerning the so-called “law/grace controversy,” many give the impression that the only ones who care about holiness are those who preach the Ten Commandments as the sole standard of sanctification. The truth is that there is no disagreement concerning whether believers should live godly lives. We all agree on the bottom line. “Without holiness, no man shall see the Lord” (Heb 12:14). The issue is how God produces such righteous behavior in His peoples” lives. By what method do we arrive at the bottom line? We contend that God will never produce such holiness through the thunders of Mt. Sinai. He will only produce it when we focus on Mt. Calvary. It is not the law, but the grace of God that has appeared to discipline us and instruct us in godliness (Titus 2: 11). True worship of God never springs from a spirit of bondage, fear, and dread. In contrast to the obligations of old covenant believers, the exhortation that the writer gives us is to “. . . be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe. . . . (12:28)” True worship will always be the result of gratitude as we meditate on the redemptive accomplishments of Christ. As we contemplate Calvary, we will marvel at God’s wisdom in designing this plan by which He can lavish His love, mercy, and grace on sinners without compromising the integrity of His absolute justice. Such worship will never occur while we gaze at ourselves. This is true even if we are focusing on what God is doing in us. It will only take place when we gaze on Christ and what God has done in Him.

Should we, then, avoid self-examination? Of course not! We should simply keep it in its proper place. God never intended self-scrutiny to be the believer’s continual occupation. In fact, the writers of the New Testament Scriptures never give a general exhortation for believers to examine themselves as a part of their daily discipline. None but those who are in danger of personal apostasy (because of the presence of false teachers who have led others away) or those who are walking contrary to the revealed truth of God are counseled to examine themselves. Search the context of such passages as 1 Cor 11:28; 2 Cor 13:5; 2 Pet 1:10; and 1 John 5:13 to see for yourself if this is true. The object of our continual meditation must be the glory of Christ revealed in the Scriptures. It is as we gaze on His glory that it will please the Spirit to transform us into His image (see 2 Cor 3:18). On occasion we must take personal inventory to be certain that we are on track. Then, we must turn again to gaze on our beloved.



  1. April 1, 2013 at 1:21 am

    “The object of our continual meditation must be the glory of Christ revealed in the Scriptures.” I was counseling a dear brother at church this afternoon – he was grieved by sin in his life that he could not master. I exhorted him to leave that sin alone and look unto Christ, for He alone has conquered sin and death and we are commanded in Scripture to FIX our eyes on the eternal, the faithful witness Who has paid the debt we owe and cannot pay and will return to claim the trophies of grace and present us to our Father. We cannot win a victory over sin by fighting it – only if we have been made a new creature in Christ can we have victory. And we exercise this victory by pressing hard toward godliness, relying on His Spirit and not our selves.

    • April 1, 2013 at 12:56 pm

      Amen, my brother. That is exactly the message of the New Testament Scriptures. We do not fix our minds on Jesus as a substitute for obedience, but as the only means to obedience. This is, after all, what the Scriptures mean by “perseverance in faith.”

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