By comparing the old covenant and its Levitical priesthood with the new covenant in Christ and His Melchizedekian priesthood, the author of Hebrews seeks to convince his readers not to abandon their faith in Jesus. Clearly, the order Jesus inaugurates is superior to the old covenant order, and the best way to explain that is to compare the two covenants, noting both their similarities and differences (Heb. 7–8). Similarities between the old and new covenant sacrificial systems are explored in Hebrews 9–10 as a point of departure for showing how Jesus’ sacrifice is better than the sacrifices of old. Today’s passage begins this exploration by describing some of the elements of the old covenant tabernacle.
The author draws primarily from Exodus 25–26 in describing the old covenant tabernacle. This was the portable sanctuary God instructed Moses to build, and there the Lord manifested His special presence until Solomon built a permanent temple in Jerusalem some five hundred years later to replace the tabernacle (1 Kings 6–8). Solomon’s temple, later destroyed by the Babylonians, and then Herod’s temple constructed after the return from the exile differed in some ways from the tabernacle, particularly in that each temple had more courts than the tabernacle. Nevertheless, the core of the temple remained essentially the same as the core of the tabernacle, featuring both the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place described in Hebrews 9:1–3.
The Holy Place, where the priests ministered daily, was separated by a curtain from the Most Holy Place, where once a year the high priest alone ministered (v. 3). This fact will be important for the argument of the author of Hebrews in just a few verses (vv. 6–10). Various pieces of sacred furniture stood in the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place, as noted in verses 3–5 (see Ex. 25), but Hebrews 9–10 takes particular notice of the ark of the covenant, which held the tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments, the pot of manna from the wilderness, and Aaron’s staff (Ex. 16:33; Num. 17:1–11; 1 Kings 8:9). Note that the Old Testament never tells the Israelites explicitly to place the pot of manna and Aaron’s staff in the ark but only to place them before the Lord. But as God manifested His presence above the ark under the old covenant (Ex. 25:22), it seems that the Israelites placed the pot and the staff therein. In any case, the tabernacle and furniture associated with it mean that God had a specific plan and purpose for the old covenant sanctuary (Heb. 9:6–10).