The author of Hebrews does not dwell on the furniture and structure of the tabernacle and the places where the various priests ministered simply to give us some information about the old covenant religious system (Heb. 9:1–7). Instead, he mentions these things in order to give us a lesson about the inferiority of the old covenant in relation to what is available now under Christ and the new covenant. That becomes clear in today’s passage as he specifically unfolds what the structure and service of the old covenant tabernacle and temple tell us.
Hebrews 9:8 explains that the presence of the tabernacle/temple with its various sections separated by curtains and with access limited to the tribe of Levi is a picture from the Holy Spirit that the way into holy places—into God’s presence—remains closed off to God’s people as long as that structure and its associated religious system endure. In fact, the tabernacle symbolizes “the present age” (v. 9). This could mean “the age then present,” referring specifically to the period before Christ came, or something more like “the present crisis.” If the former, the author is stressing how access to God’s presence was closed off before the Son inaugurated the new covenant. If the latter, the author emphasizes the foolishness of his audience’s present desire for the old covenant system in light of what Jesus has brought. Either way, the point is that the old covenant system never gave the people access to God. This is different, however, from saying that the saints who lived under the old covenant period had no access to the Lord. They clearly did (Ps. 51:11), yet as we have noted, that access was not actually through the old covenant system but through their being partakers of the blessings of Christ’s work before Jesus accomplished His ministry in time. John Owen comments, “The apostle does not exclude [the old covenant saints] all from the grace and favor of God, but only shows their disadvantage in comparison of believers under the gospel, in that this way was not manifested unto them.”
The old covenant system could not give the saints access to the Lord’s blessed presence, Hebrews 9:9–10 explains, because its sacrifices could not purify the conscience but dealt only with external matters of food, drink, and washings. Only those with clean hearts can enter the presence of God (Ps. 24:4), and the old covenant sacrifices could not actually purify the consciences of sinners.