First Things (Hebrews 9:1-5)

Compromise has its distinct advantages.  For the original readers of Hebrews, the cultural collision of values presented them with a binary choice.  They could soldier on, keeping the faith in a faithless world—only to endure the ridicule and shame of their friends and neighbors.  Alternately, they could abandon their faith, sliding backward into the culturally acceptable traditions of Judaism.  The letter to the Hebrews arose from the fact that many opted for the path of least resistance.

Today’s world is no different.  No one wants to be labeled a “fanatic.”  So yes, we may admit to being Christians, but we make sure to clarify that surely we’re not one of those Christians—you know the type: either flaunting their moral superiority or trying to cram religion down everyone’s throats.

Such attempts say more about us than we realize.  As much as we might try to justify ourselves for “defending the Christian message,” it’s really our own reputations that we’re trying to shield.  That’s not faithful confidence; that’s pride.

If the writer of Hebrews were working in our day, he might publish a helpful guide on how to navigate a post-everything world.  It would probably contain very helpful suggestions on how to communicate your faith and how to understand cultural objections to it.  Don’t get me wrong: such books are incredibly valuable.  But they don’t necessarily address the question of “first things.”  What do we mean by “first things?”  We speak of those core beliefs that give rise to all others.  Beliefs we live for.  Beliefs we would die for.

So the writer of Hebrews turns his focus to Jesus.  He exalts the person and work of Christ as if to say: This is the standard to which you are called.  This is the standard by which you are measured.  All other matters are secondary.  Therefore Hebrews 9 continues the exaltation of Christ by further developing the idea of Jesus as the true and better high priest.  While previous sections focused on what a priest is, these sections focus on what a priest does.  To that end, the writer of Hebrews begins by describing the symbol-laden architecture of the Hebrew Temple.

Now even the first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly place of holiness. 2 For a tent was prepared, the first section, in which were the lampstand and the table and the bread of the Presence. It is called the Holy Place. 3 Behind the second curtain was a second section called the Most Holy Place, 4 having the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, in which was a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron’s staff that budded, and the tablets of the covenant. 5 Above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these things we cannot now speak in detail. (Hebrews 9:1-5)

The Jewish temple—and the mobile tabernacle before that—had an essential function.  Like every other major culture, the Jewish people understood their temple as the location where God uniquely dwelled.  If you could have walked inside the temple, you’d see a wide array of symbols and images—all designed to invoke the concept of a garden.  Well, not just a garden.  The garden, to be sure.  The Garden of Eden was the one place where man was able to directly interact with God.  Yet when sin entered the picture, this garden was lost, defiled, and man was disbarred by the flaming sword of God’s angels (called cherubim).

The temple was designed to evoke similar imagery.  Man would be reminded of his deepest purpose: to connect with God.  But the series of barriers—designed to maintain a separation between man and God—reminded God’s people that their sin kept them at a physical and relational distance.  So much so that no one—save for the yearly entry of the high priest—could enter the “Most Holy Place,” where God’s glory had historically been specifically manifest in a great cloud.

The rest of the architecture contained the “furniture” that was used in Israel’s sacrificial system.  The ark of the covenant contained the broken tablets of God’s law—but also, we’re told, the staff of Aaron and manna.  If you paid attention in Sunday School, you might be aware that nowhere in the Old Testament does it specify that the ark contained anything other than the tablet fragments. Further, the ark is described as in front of the temple curtain—not behind. So what’s going on here?  A non-Biblical text (2 Baruch 6:7) suggests that prior to the destruction of the second temple (in 70 A.D.) an angel of the Lord came and removed the ark from the Holy of Holies.  It’s possible that both Hebrews and Baruch share a similar source of interpretation.  What this means for temple worship is unclear—especially since the passage of time caused temple worship to evolve and change.

What remains clear is that man’s truest purpose is found in temple worship.  We’ll expand on this in the coming days, but for now we can conclude with one basic idea.  What were you made for?  This question is easy to ask about our car—it was made for driving.  Tools are made for building, speakers for listening, books for reading…you get the idea.  But ask the same question about man and, well, you won’t get a straightforward answer.  An ancient writer once famously said that “man is the measure of all things.”  But that can’t possibly be true.  Man is deeply broken, deeply flawed, indelibly stained.  To measure oneself, to continually reinvent oneself—these are the ill-fated attempts of a creature ignorant of either purpose or destiny.  Guilt and shame hover over us like a low-grade fever.  What if things could be different?  What if we were truly made for more?  What if we could find purpose, find meaning, find solace not in the meanings we invent for ourselves, but in the truth and beauty and goodness found only in God.  We were made to love, to be loved, and to worship.  Discovering this purpose is the first step toward radical joy.

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