Purified to Serve the Living God
Topic: Covenant/New Covenant Passage: Hebrews 9:1–14
I was 13 years old. It was one of my first jobs. Some rental property hosted several businesses, and my job was to keep the grounds clean. I agreed to pick up the trash around the property once a week. About three months later, though, I decided that was boring. Once a week turned into once every two weeks. That turned into once a month. Of course, the extra trash signaled to the owner that I wasn’t fulfilling my duties. He remained patient but firmly expected excellence.
As weeks went by, I felt a growing sense of guilt. I hadn’t stuck to my word. I dishonored the man who hired me. Eventually, the burden of guilt so devastated me that I went to the owner and confessed how I had been slacking. He agreed. He also explained further ways I had wronged him and others, some ways that I hadn’t even thought about. But then he forgave me, hugged me, looked me in the eye, and asked me to start over the next week. I went to him absolutely crushed. But I left with great freedom in forgiveness.
What was that burden I carried, though? What was this inner judge rightly condemning me? Why did I feel so guilty? It’s called a conscience. As God’s image bearers, we are moral creatures. We make moral judgments about right and wrong. The conscience is that part of you that shines the moral spotlight back on yourself.[i] It’s not merely the sense of knowing there’s right and wrong; it also includes a sense that we will have to answer for all we do and think and feel.
Why the conscience exists at all has befuddled many people. But the Bible gives very strong pointers. For instance, Romans 1 teaches that all humans know that God exists, he’s powerful, and we’re accountable to him. Human conscience is imperfect. Sometimes it’s seared. But Romans 2 still indicates that the works of the law are written on our hearts; that our conscience will bear witness and accuse us on Judgment Day.
It’s one thing for me to stand before another man that I admired growing up and give an account for my wrongs. But it’s whole other thing to stand before the Holy One, Maker of heaven and earth, and answer to him. As Scripture says, “It’s a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” Many of you sit there with consciences burdened with guilt. You know that you’ve done wrong. Being a Christian even makes that burden worse sometimes. We know more truly how holy God is. We know more accurately how much he hates sin; and sometimes it’s enough to drive us to despair.
Beloved, Hebrews 9 is good news for a guilty conscience. Not only does the Bible tell us why our conscience burdens us so greatly, and why it ought to burden us before God’s holiness. It also tells us how the Lord cleanses the conscience frees us to serve in God’s presence without fear. Hebrews 9 is good news for the guilty.
What the Old Covenant Foreshadowed But Couldn’t Fulfill
Verses 1-14 have two main parts. The first part comes in verses 1-10. It explains what the old covenant foreshadowed but couldn’t fulfill. Chapter 8 told us that Jesus mediates a better covenant. Something not yet explained, though, is the sacrifice that makes the new covenant so much better. That’s why chapters 9-10 exist.
But before getting to that sacrifice, he tells us how the old covenant anticipated it. 9:1 says, “Now even the first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly place of holiness.” What is that earthly place of holiness? Verses 2-5 describe it for us; and what we find described is the tabernacle of Israel’s wilderness wanderings. Exodus 25-40 is the place to go, if you want some homework. But for now he simply sketches a few details to make a specific point. Verse 2 says…
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.
Note that: “of these things we cannot now speak in detail.” So I won’t belabor the point either, but only to say this. Sometimes you may wonder why God gives so much space to describing the tabernacle. The ark of acacia wood, four rings of gold for this, two poles for that, plates, dishes, bowls, lampstand, altars, tables, curtains—so many details. Why so much time? How does this help my marriage, my parenting, my work?
That sort of impatient reading causes us to miss something very crucial. Central to being the people of God is the dwelling of God. What good is the rest of life if God doesn’t dwell with you? The most important thing in life is fellowship with God. That’s what the tabernacle pictured. It not only exposed a big problem—sin separates from God; it also pictured what needed to happen for man to dwell with God once again. The gold, the precious stones, the cherubs, the ornate lampstand with flower blossoms—every detail points back to Eden and what was lost there. But then it also takes us forward and pictures what must happen to bring us into God’s presence again.
That’s why he next describes the regulations for worship. Verse 6, “These preparations having thus been made, the priests go regularly into the first section, performing their ritual duties, but into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people.” That’s from Leviticus 16.
Once a year in Israel the high priest would enter the Most Holy Place. He represented the people before God. He did so to atone for the people’s sins, his own included. Atonement has to do with God resolving the sin problem. God is holy. His law is perfect. The problem is that people break it. They sin. Because God is holy, he can’t overlook sin. Sin deserves death. That’s the punishment.
At the same time, God chooses to love sinners and bring them into his presence. But the only way they can enter his presence is by the death of another in their place. The high priest would offer the blood of bulls and goats to atone for the people’s sin. They deserve to die. But atonement had to do with inflicting the death penalty for sin upon another in your place. It wasn’t just about blood being spilt, but blood signifying the death of another in your place. “This death substitutes for the death I deserve.”
That was the point. Every year on the Day of Atonement, the sacrifices of the high priest taught the people about their need for atonement. But it also indicated something else. The very existence of these regulations meant something was lacking. The very fact that priestly sacrifices were necessary over and over again, the very fact that the people still couldn’t enter God’s presence freely but only the High Priest, and even he but once a year—all of it showed a serious deficiency.
He puts it this way in verse 8: “By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing (which is symbolic for [or until, pointing to] the present age). According to this arrangement [that old arrangement], gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation.”
What’s he saying? Or better, what was the Holy Spirit indicating under the old covenant? The old priestly order, the old regulations for worship—it all existed as a symbol pointing forward to a better age, a time of reformation. Until that time came, the old order was seriously lacking in two big ways: (1) access to God’s presence wasn’t open for the people; (2) the sacrifices couldn’t perfect the conscience of the worshiper. No access. No perfection. No guilty conscience cleared. No good!
Nevertheless, it all pointed forward to a better day. So, while the old covenant foreshadowed better things, it could never actually bring them. Christ brings them!
What Christ Fulfills and Secures for Us
Christ brings them, which is the second main part: what Christ fulfills and secures for us. Follow along in verses 11-14:
But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.
What did Jesus do to bring the time of reformation? To begin, Jesus appeared to bring the good things. Verse 11, “when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come…” He’s speaking on this side of the cross. The day has already dawned with Jesus’ coming. What are the good things in view?
Well, very soon he will speak of the purified conscience and access to God—those are really good. But there’s more to it than that. It also includes every blessing of the new covenant that chapter 8 discussed—a new heart, a renewed covenant bond, forgiveness of sins. To this you could also add freedom from the devil’s tyranny—2:14; removal of God’s wrath—2:17; the promised rest with God—4:10; the unshakable kingdom of 12:28. To use Paul’s language, it’s every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places. Christ appeared to bring us these good things. How did he do it, though?
Well, Jesus offered himself by the Spirit. Verse 14, “who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God.” There’s all kinds of debate over what “eternal Spirit” means—should it be lower-case spirit referring to Jesus’ humanity; is this Jesus’ divine nature; is it stressing the divinity of the Holy Spirit? On and on the questions go. The way I take it is that the Holy Spirit empowered Jesus to accomplish his mission. Luke’s Gospel emphasizes this quite well—from the virgin conception, to Jesus’ anointing, to Jesus’ temptations, to his mission in Galilee, casting out demons, rejoicing at Satan’s downfall, you name it—the Holy Spirit strengthens Jesus as a man, such that when he comes to the cross, and walks through the agony of the cross in the Spirit’s strength, at every turn he is a man without blemish. He is the perfect sacrifice.
That he’s the eternal Spirit seems to look back to 9:8, where we saw the Holy Spirit at work through the old covenant. That Spirit who was indicating way back there, is the same Spirit, the eternal Spirit, who enabled Jesus to offer himself this way on the cross. In other words, the Holy Spirit who is eternal not only foreshadowed the time of reformation; he empowered the Messiah to bring it to fruition.
Jesus also secured eternal redemption for us. Verse 12, “he entered…not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.” Now, you could read that to mean Jesus secured redemption as a result of the entering—but that’s not the point here. The main verb in verses 11-12 reads better like this: “having appeared…having secured…Christ entered…” He appeared. He secured, by offering himself. When that was finished, then he entered.
But what does it mean that he secured an eternal redemption? Redemption has to do with payment being made to loose from captivity.[ii] Think Exodus with me. The people were in slavery. No ability to liberate themselves. Someone greater than the people, someone greater than Egypt—God had to liberate them. But he did it at the cost of the firstborn. Except, he didn’t take Israel’s firstborn. In their place God provided the blood of a lamb. Their freedom came at the cost of the lamb.
Fast forward to Jesus. Far more serious, we are slaves to sin. We lack the ability to liberate ourselves. Someone greater than us, someone greater than sin—God has to liberate us. But he did it at the cost of his Son. Jesus is the true Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Our freedom came at the cost of Jesus’ life. With that payment, God redeemed us—that’s what every sacrifice following the Exodus pointed to. Even more, Jesus’ blood was of such infinite value that it bought us an eternal redemption. All those united to Jesus are redeemed from their slavery to sin forever.
Here’s more good news? Jesus also entered the true holy place. Verse 12, “he entered once for all into the holy places.” Don’t think earthly holy places either. Look at verse 11: “[he entered] through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation).” Remember, the earthly tent was but a copy, a scale model of God’s heavenly dwelling. Occasionally in Scripture, the Lord pulls back the curtain, so to speak, and gives prophets a vision of God’s heavenly dwelling—and it is glorious.
That’s the dwelling place Jesus entered. Not only did we need freedom from sin; we needed access to God. Under the old covenant, the way was closed. The priests could never open it. Jesus opened it for us. He offered himself as an unblemished sacrifice on earth, which then won his place heaven. He entered into the very presence of God, not just to represent us but to bring us with him into that glory.
He appeared. He offered. He secured. He entered. Now notice the result in verses 13-14: “For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh…” That is, if those imperfect things worked to make people ceremonially clean—not fully clean, but clean enough to participate in the shadows. “Then how much more,” he says, “will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.”
So there’s the comparison with the older sacrifices. But then he also stresses how much greater Jesus’ was. Those sacrifices back their never allowed free access to God’s presence. Nor did any of them ever cleanse the conscience. Jesus’ sacrifice does both. It’s effective; it achieves both for us.
It purifies our conscience from dead works. The works are dead in that outside of Christ we’re dead in sin, we’re dead to God’s word. So we then give ourselves to idols that will only lead to eternal death in the age to come. It doesn’t matter how religious they may seem; without a relationship with the living God, they’re dead. Dead works leave us undone before the Holy One. We’re guilty for all our dead works.
The good news, though, is that Jesus purifies our conscience from those dead works. And when he does, he makes us into a new kind of person. We enjoy serving the living God. Dead works are not our thing anymore. Jesus makes us alive in the Spirit and alive to God’s word and alive in God’s presence. We no longer carry the burden of our guilt, because sin is dealt with once and for all. We no longer have to fear the Lord’s wrath; we have freedom to live and serve in his presence.
Can you see him pleading with the people? “Why would you return to your old ways in Judaism? Why would you put yourself back under the old covenant? The old covenant could never clear you before God. Jesus can! Lay hold of Jesus! He opened the way!” The author doesn’t want them to let go of Jesus. To do so would be to forfeit all the good things he makes true under the new covenant.
Give thanks that Jesus purifies our conscience.
Are you thankful for Jesus’ work? Do you wake up thankful that Jesus purified your conscience from dead works? You don’t have to carry that guilty burden. You’re like Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress. The burden of the Law weighs him down. The weight of God’s holiness and his guilt for sin is just crushing. But as the story goes, Christian eventually comes to the cross. And he finds the burden loosed from his shoulders, it tumbles down into the grave, and falls in such that he sees it no more. And he responds with song: “Blessed cross! Blessed sepulcher! Blessed rather be the Man that there was put to shame for me!” We sing of this purification, don’t we?!
Brothers and sisters, Jesus purifies our conscience from dead works that we may serve in God’s presence freely. Come to Jesus with your guilty burdens. He died to set you free. More than ever as believers, we need to keep coming to him. As our knowledge of God’s holiness grows, the more we understand how shameful our sins truly are—the more we’re aware of how much we need his cleansing.
Andy Naselli and J. D. Crowley put it this way:
There is generally a proportional relationship between how mature you are as a Christian and how aware you are of your sinfulness. The more you grow by means of grace, the more sensitive you become to your sinfulness…That explains why a Christian often feels so wretched. But then what? If the gap between what we should be and what we really are keeps growing, how can we possibly escape complete despair in the Christian life? What do we do with this supercharged knowledge of God and this supercharged conscience with its supercharged condemnations? Only an ever-increasing trust in Christ’s work on the cross can fill this ever-widening gap and keep us from despair.”[iii]
Jesus alone has made the sacrifice to purify our conscience from dead works. Give thanks.
Tell others how Jesus purifies the conscience.
Then tell others as well. Do you believe this truth for others? It is true that some people damage their conscience significantly. Some ignore their conscience to the point that it becomes callous, hardened, seared by lies they constantly tell themselves. It’s one thing for people to feel guilty when they shouldn’t; but it’s another thing when they ought to feel guilty and don’t. In their case, we must pray for God to change their disposition, to give them a new heart that’s receptive to truth. We must then take steps to teach them God’s holiness and pray again that they sense the weight of his glory.
But when they’re undone, preach Christ. Hold out the person of Jesus to them. How many people have you talked to are burdened by their guilt? A month ago I had a neighbor telling me the dark places he went after his mother died at age 16. He carries a lot of shame from that past; he regrets the choices he made. Some of you have talked with women who’ve had abortions; and their conscience torments them. I’ve talked to men who’ve devastated their marriage and family because of their sexual immorality. You’ve likely encountered others who’ve wronged you in some way, and in order to ease their conscience they try to make up for it with all kinds of deeds and gifts and sacrifices. It’s like they enslave themselves to others as a way to self-atone. You may know someone who committed a crime; the consequences haunt them at night. You may have a son or daughter who feels guilty for something they did or said at school.
Will you point them to Jesus? Will you give them this word of hope? The world can’t offer this to them. No, all the world will do is pile the guilt on and make sure you pay as long as it advances their agenda. The world will pile on the guilt to manipulate you into all kinds of slavery, and never will it be enough to please them or their gods.
But we have better news to bring: There is a fountain fill’d with blood / Drawn from Emmanuel’s veins / And sinners plunged beneath that flood / Loose all their guilty stains (William Cowper). The forgiveness you need, our God provides in Jesus. Do you believe this truth for the lost? Do you believe God will do this for your enemies? For all who come to him in Jesus, God is faithful and just to forgive sins and cleanse from all unrighteousness. Spread the news. Teach your kids. Tell your neighbors.
Serve the Lord wholeheartedly.
Also, serve the Lord wholeheartedly. Note again the purpose for the purification in verse 14: we are purified from dead works to serve the living God. As Ben put it a while back, we’re not just saved from something. We’re saved to someone—to God. Serve the living God. The language is beautiful here. Sometimes it’s translated “serve;” other times it’s translated “worship.”
In Exodus, you might recall Moses going to Pharaoh a number of times. God tells Pharaoh, “Let my people go, that they may serve me…” Same word. Redemption from slavery had worship as the goal. Or, when Satan tempted Jesus with all the nations, if he would only bow and worship. Jesus fights back with this: “Be gone, Satan! You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.” Same word. Or, in Revelation 7:15, we see a great host of saints coming out of the great tribulation. They’ve washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb; and it says, “Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.”
In other words, this service is the result of grace, images Jesus’ devotion to his Father’s will, and represents a new priesthood who serve in God’s presence. Why does Paul say things like this in 1 Timothy 4:4? This comes in the context of marriage and food: “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.” When you sit down at the dinner table, or your lunch at work, and you give thanks, according to Paul, something as mundane as eating becomes an act of worship.
Why? Because God purified you and made you into a new priesthood to serve the living God in everything you do. That will radically transform how you wake up in the morning and get ready for the day. That will radically impact the way you view a lot of the monotonous, mundane things in your marriage or in your family. Because now that you’re in Christ, you serve in the presence of the living God. Everything you do from eating to scrubbing floors to schooling your children to returning an email to hiking a trail during a pandemic to stewarding your body to painting hand rails and dealing with dissatisfied customers—when you’re in Christ you serve the living God.
Do it wholeheartedly, remembering what he redeemed you from. Remember how he purified your conscience from dead works, and commit yourself wholly to him. When you do, you know what your life will become, church? It’ll be a little outcropping of the age to come when we see God face to face. Revelation 22:3, “No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him [or serve him]. They will see his face and God’s name will be on their foreheads.” That’s the final priesthood. That’s what your life will image in this life when you serve in God’s presence day to day. In Christ, you have free access to God, and you can come without fear. His sacrifice truly removed our sin and our guilt.
[i] Image taken from Andy Naselli and J. D. Crowley, Conscience: What It Is, How to Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016), 23.
[ii] See Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), 11-64.
[iii] Naselli and Crowley, Conscience, 48.