“In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.”–Hebrews 8:13
As Americans living in a consumer-driven society, we understand the author of Hebrews intuitively. Our culture thrives on making the old obsolete by speaking of the new. It doesn’t matter what we are talking about—clothes, laptops, phones, movies, restaurants—the moment we hear that there is a new one, the old one begins to feel obsolete and worn out.
In Chapter 8, the author of Hebrews notes God’s pointed use in Jeremiah 31 of the word new. By implication, that tells us all we need to know about what came before–old.
What purpose then does the Old Covenant serve? Specifically, what was the purpose of the Old Testament tabernacle with its regulations and worship and priests and sacrifices and furniture and curtains and so on—if God knew he was just going to make it all obsolete when Jesus came?
The First Covenant teaches us to long for the Second. The Law is our teacher. It instructs us not to long for the Law and all of its trappings but to long for the Gospel. Hebrews 9 expounds on this truth using three words to explain the purpose of the Old Covenant tabernacle.
The tent is a parable.
Our author begins, “Now even the first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly place of holiness” (Hebrews 9:1). I’m not sure how familiar you are with worship in the Old Testament, but God instructed Moses to erect a tent with two sections: the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place. Between these sections was a giant curtain. Day by day, the priests went into the first section, the Holy Place, but they could never go through the curtain into the second part, the Most Holy Place, in which was the Ark of the Covenant, the mercy-seat, and the glory cloud of YHWH.
Our author doesn’t go into great detail about these things, so we won’t either, but in verses 8 and 9, he says something interesting: “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 the present age).” What verse 9 literally says is, “which is a parable” (ἥτις παραβολὴ). The tent is a parable.
Parable of the Sower, Parable of the Lost Coin, Parable of the Fig Tree, Parable of the Mustard Seed. What is a parable? A parable is a visual aid to help us understand a spiritual reality. A parable shows us what something is like. The author of Hebrews is telling us that the two sections of the tent are showing us what the First and Second Covenants are like. It’s a parable–a visual aid to feed our longing for the Second Covenant.
Let’s say you’ve got an iPhone 11. It’s amazing! It’s so great! So powerful! But then Apple has a big event where they announce, “iPhone 12 now exists!” The moment you hear these words, you know that however great your iPhone 11 is, it’s second best.
Now consider the priests. You’re a Levitical priest! Amazing! You get to go into the Holy Place. So great! But also, a Most Holy Place also exists. The moment you see that curtain and know that something called the Most Holy Place is behind it, no matter how great the Holy Place is, it’s second best.
As a consumer, You may never have seen the iPhone 12, but simply knowing it exists tells you your iPhone 11 is old news. As a priest, you may never have seen the Most Holy Place, but simply knowing it exists behind that curtain tells you that your Holy Place is old news–and you know that you want to go in.
It’s a parable. As great as the first section, the Holy Place, is, knowing that behind the curtain is something called the Most Holy Place makes you long for the second. As good and holy as the Law was, it’s not the Most Holy Place. In Second Covenant, the New Covenant, that’s where the presence of God is–that’s where we want to be.
The tent is an imitation.
The first teaches us to long for the second. A second word appears in verse 23: “It was therefore necessary that the patterns of things in the heavens should be purified with these; but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these.” Hebrews calls the earthly tent a pattern of the things in heaven–or more exactly, an imitation (ὑποδείγματα).
These days, to call something an imitation implies it is substandard. In countries that don’t honor trademarks, you can find some fun imitations. I saw online a pair of Mikes for sale. In a neighborhood overseas you could eat at Pizza Huh? or KFG or grab a latte at Sunbucks Coffee.
Here in America you will find all kinds of imitation flavors in the baking aisle. What is the purpose of imitation vanilla? It’s meant to taste like the real thing. But if you had both imitation vanilla and real Madagascar Vanilla Bean extract in your cabinet, which one would you reach for?
Once a year, the Old Testament people got a foretaste, a picture of what Jesus would one day do. On the day of Atonement, one man would pass through the curtain into the presence of God in the Most Holy Place carrying the blood of a bull and goat to take away the sins of the people. Question: Did it take away the sins of the people? Of course not. It was an imitation. It only tasted like the real thing. But that little taste in the first was meant to make us long for the second.
The tent is a copy.
Everything about the first earthly tent was meant to make us long for the second heavenly tent. The author of Hebrews employs one final word of explanation in verse 24: “For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.” The earthly tent was a copy of the true things.
The difference between the first and the second is the difference between seeing a picture of the Grand Canyon and visiting the Grand Canyon. Seeing the picture is no substitute for actually being there. In fact, the copy only makes us long to see the real thing.
The first makes us long for the second by serving as a parable, imitation, and a copy. The Old Covenant with its earthly tent, high priest, sacrifices, and worship arouses in us a desire for the New Covenant with its heavenly tent, High Priest, eternal sacrifice, and worship. When the New appeared in Christ, the Old was pleased to say, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:30).