Jesus and the Heavenly Sanctuary

Jesus is superior because he ministers in the “true tent” as opposed to the earthly “copy and shadow.”  He is not a priest in the earthly tabernacle or temple, but rather in the “real tabernacle” which is in heaven.  This text alludes to Exodus 25:40 which indicates that the original tabernacle was built after a pattern which was revealed to Moses on Mt. Sinai.

In Exodus Moses received the plan for the Tabernacle from God.  The noun tabnit means something like “an architectural plan” often with the connotation that the item which is designed follows the pattern of something else.  An idol, for example, is in the pattern of a person or animal (Deut 4:16-18, referring to “graven images.”)   In the Greek translation, the word is tupos, a pattern or plan.  But in philosophical writings the word can have the sense of archetype, the ideal thing after which something is patterned.

As with other elements of Israel’s history, the writer of Hebrews is creating a typology between the earthly, historical fact of the tabernacle and the heavenly, “substance behind the reality.”  The writer is explaining that the heavenly is greater than the earthly, therefore the heavenly priest who ministers in the heavenly sanctuary is superior to the earthly.

It is significant that 8:2 states that the earthly tabernacle was set up by the Lord, alluding to Num 24:5-6 (describing the loveliness of the tents pitched by the Lord).  The immediate reference is to the tabernacle, but all of creation is the “tent pitched by the Lord” (Isa 42:15; 40:22).  The tabernacle was a kind of replica of Eden, decorated with trees and guarded by Cherubim.

Does this imply that there really is a “heavenly sanctuary”?  Possibly, since the idea of a heavenly sanctuary is common in both the Hebrew Bible and in the Second Temple period literature.  Ezekiel 40-48 is most obvious example, but see also Jub 31:34, 1 Enoch 90:28f., 1QSb 4.24ff, (Mark 14:58 may also be included here, although this comes on the lips of false witnesses at the time of Jesus’ trial.)   But the point the writer is trying to make is that just as the copy is inferior to the original, so too the earthly copy is inferior to the heavenly perfection.  If Jesus is a high priest in that heavenly sanctuary, then his priesthood and sacrifice are also therefore superior.

Ellingworth (Hebrews, 408) sees this passage as a reversal of the intent of Exodus 24.  There, Moses had a copy of the perfect model from heaven, therefore the worship in the tabernacle was superior to any other form of worship.  Here in Hebrews, he argues, the copy Moses made is inferior to the heavenly reality in Jesus. But these may not be mutually exclusive points, Moses’ tabernacle was superior to all forms of worship in the Ancient world, but now in Jesus the “substance” of Jesus’ ministry is greater than the shadow of Moses’ ministry.

The writer therefore sums up the argument so far in the book (Jesus and his high priesthood are superior to the levitical priesthood) and anticipates the major point of this chapter – that the covenant under which Jesus operates is superior to the old.