Christ’s superior priesthood is rooted in how our Lord’s priestly work is similar to that of the old covenant’s priesthood and yet is so much better because of its true efficacy. That has been the argument of Hebrews 7:1–9:17, and in today’s passage the author turns once more to the old covenant in order to draw a parallel to the work of Jesus and to ultimately show the superiority of the new covenant He mediates versus the old.
From the New Testament, we understand that many people—including for a time Jesus’ own disciples—had a hard time believing that the Messiah had to die (Mark 8:31–33; 1 Cor. 1:23). That may lie in the background of Hebrews 9:15–22, where the author essentially teaches that since a death was required to enact the old covenant, a death was required to enact the new. In verses 18–22, the author refers specifically to the ceremony that sealed the old covenant. Exodus 24:1–8 gives us the historical record of this ceremony wherein Moses sacrificed oxen and sprinkled their blood on the people and on the altar at Sinai once the Israelites had agreed to the covenant terms. Similarly, the new covenant was enacted by blood, but with the perfect blood of Christ and not the blood of animals. John Owen, commenting on these verses, looks to the actions of Moses in order to explain two benefits we receive from the death of Christ: “This distribution of blood, half on the altar, half on the people, one to make atonement, the other to purify or sanctify, taught the double efficacy of Christ’s blood in making atonement for sin for our justification and purifying of our natures in sanctification.”
Death not only inaugurated the old covenant, but it occurred repeatedly during the old covenant administration in order to cleanse the tabernacle and its vessels. Indeed, “under the law almost everything is purified with blood” (Heb. 9:21–22), and we see in the mosaic law blood used to purify the altar, the priestly garments, the tabernacle veil, and more (Lev. 4:6, 17; 8:19, 24, 30). This was so because, as Hebrews 9:22 tells us, there is no forgiveness of sins without the shedding of blood. The point here is not that blood has magical properties to cleanse but that blood represents life (Lev. 17:11), and to shed it is to enact the curse of death that is due to sin (Gen. 2:15–17). God cannot extend forgiveness without satisfying His justice, so death must occur—blood must be shed—in order for men and women to receive forgiveness.