To The Hebrews

The Epistle to the Hebrews

Cecil N. Wright

   Text: "It was necessary therefore that the copies of the things in the heavens should be cleansed with these [animal sacrifices]; but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these."

This refers to a "necessary" difference in the "cleansing" element of the heavenly realities and of their earthly "copies," and poses a question as to what the "things in the heavens" or "heavenly things" are that need cleansing, and why they need it. And it may be beyond our ability to ascertain with anything like certainty, for it has been a puzzle to some of the most astute textual scholars.

Quotations from Scholars

1. Robert Milligan mentions that it has been alleged that the above mentioned "necessity arises from the sin of the angels who kept not their first estate, but who in consequence of their rebellion were cast down to Tartarus (2 Peter 2:4; Jude 6)." "But," says he, "angels are not embraced in our premises; and must not therefore be forced into our conclusions. See note on ch.2:16." (Commentary on Hebrews.)

2. A.T. Robertson says: "To us it seems a bit strained to speak of the ritual of cleansing or dedication of heaven itself by the appearance of Christ as Priest-Victim. But the whole picture is highly mystical" (Word Studies in the New Testament).

3. The Expositor's Greek Testament quotes Bruce as follows: "I prefer to make no attempt to assign a theological meaning to the words. I would rather make them intelligible to my mind by thinking of the glory and honor accruing even to heaven by the entrance there of the ‘lamb of God.' I believe there is more poetry than theology in the words."

On the other hand, however, its editor of Hebrews, Marcus Dods, continues by saying:

"But it is scarcely permissible to exclude at this point of the author's argument the theological inference that in some sense and in some relation the heavenlies need cleansing. The earthly tabernacle, as God's dwelling, might have been supposed to be hallowed by His presence and to need no cleansing, but being also his meeting place with men it required to be cleansed. And so our heavenly relations with God, and all wherewith we seek to approach Him, need cleansing. In themselves things heavenly need no cleansing, but as entered upon by sinful men they need it. Our eternal relations with God require purification."

4. Similarly, Marvin R. Vincent quotes Delitzch as follows: "If the heavenly city of God, with its Holy Place, is, conformably with the promise, destined for the covenant people, that they may attain to perfect fellowship with God, then their guilt has defiled these holy things as well as the earthly, and they must be purified in the same way as the typical law appointed for the latter, only not by the blood of an imperfect, but of a perfect sacrifice" (Word Studies in the New Testament).

5. Albert Barnes, however, makes short shrift of the matter with the following words: "The use of the word purified, here applied to heaven, does not imply that heaven was before unholy, but it denotes that it is now made accessible to sinners; or that they may come and worship there in an acceptable manner" (Notes on the New Testament).

6. On the other hand, Robert Milligan again states: "Nothing short of real purification of ‘the heavenly things' will, it seems to me, fairly meet the requirements of the text. And I am therefore inclined to think that for the present, at least, this is for us rather a matter of faith than of philosophy. When we can fully comprehend and explain how much more holy God is than any of the holy angels (rev. 15:4), and how it is that the very heavens are not clean in his sight (Job 15:15), we may then perhaps understand more clearly than we do now, how it is that ‘the heavenly things,' embracing even the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, should need to be purified with the atoning blood of the Lord Jesus. The fact itself seems to be clearly revealed in our text; but the reason of it is not so obvious."

Then he asks: "Can it be owing to the fact, that many of the saints were admitted into Heaven in anticipation of the death of Christ, and that though justified by faith, through the grace and forbearance of God, they nevertheless required the purifying application of the blood of Christ when shed, in order to make them absolutely holy. See notes on ch.9:15." (Commentary on Hebrews.)

We shall proceed on the premise that Milligan, in his first sentence quoted above, and not Barnes, is correct. But please keep in mind the latter's word "before," and likewise Milligan's question just noted, both of which we shall have occasion to refer to again under "Concluding Observations."

Observations from Scripture

1. The First Covenant and Earthly Tabernacle. The "copies of the things in the heavens" were the earthly tabernacle erected by Moses and its furniture and utensils (vs.1-5, 18-22). They were associated with the first "testament" or "covenant" made at Sinai with fleshly Israel, which was "dedicated" with the blood of calves and goats, sprinkled upon "the book itself and all the people" (vs.18-20).

The Greek word for "dedicated" is egkekainistai, a form of egkainizo, 1. To renew (2 Chronicles 15:8). 2. To do anew, again (Sir. 33(36).6). 3. To initiate, consecrate, dedicate (Deuteronomy 20:5; 1 Kings 8:63; I Samuel 11:14, etc.; Hebrews 9:18; 10:20) -- according to Thayer. Milligan suggests "inaugurated" as the best sense in 9:18, where it is said that "the first covenant hath not been "dedicated without blood." This accords with Thayer's "initiated."

(NOTE: It appears that Thayer should have included 1 Samuel 11:14 in category No.1, "to renew," instead of category N.3.)

2. The Second or New Covenant and Heavenly Tabernacle. The "first" covenant or testament was taken away by Christ, "that he may establish the second" (10:9), of which "new covenant" he is mediator (9:15), and his blood is the blood of said covenant (Matthew 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25) -- through which blood he "entered in once for all into the holy place [heaven itself, Hebrews 9:24], having obtained eternal redemption" (Hebrews 9:12).

 "We have ... a high priest, who sat down on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a minister of the sanctuary, and of the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, not man [in contrast with the earthly copy]. . . . Now, if he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all, seeing there are those who offer the gifts according to the law; who serve that which is a copy and shadow of the heavenly things, . . . But now he has obtained a ministry the more excellent, by so much more as he is also the mediator of a better covenant, which is enacted upon better promises" (8:1-6).

"For if the blood of goats and bulls [offered under the first covenant], and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling them that hath been defiled, sanctify unto the [ceremonial] cleanness of the flesh: how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the [or, his] eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish unto God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve a living God?" (9:13-14).

(NOTE: Take notice of how closely "dedication," "sanctification," and "cleansing" seem to be associated. And this is reinforced by the statement of 1 Thessalonians 4:3-7, as follows: "For this is the will of God, even your sanctification; that ye abstain from fornication; that each one of you know how to possess himself of his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in the passion of lust, even as the Gentiles who know not God; that no man transgress and wrong his brother in the matter: because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as also we forewarned you and testified. For God called us not for uncleanness, but in sanctification.")

Again, "when he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, [he] sat down on the right hand of God; ... For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified" (10:12-14). "And their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more" (v.17).

NOTE: This does not mean that when one becomes a Christian, even sins he might commit in the future are also then taken care of; but rather it means that once any sin is forgiven it is, unlike under the law of Moses, not remembered again annually and need atoning for again and again year by year, but forgiven for all time to come, But the efficacy of the blood of Jesus Christ does continue for all time to be available for the cleansing of sins committed by Christians after they become such.)

3. Practical Benefits Under the New Covenant For Those Who are Still Upon Earth. On the basis of Christ's high priesthood and the superior blessings it makes available, Christians are admonished to "draw near with boldness unto the throne of grace [which must be thought of as being in heaven], that we may receive mercy [which involves forgiveness of sins as needed] and find grace to help us [otherwise also] in time of need" (4:16). "HAVING therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holy place [where Christ and the "throne of grace" are, and the benefits of his shed blood are to be obtained] by the blood of Jesus, by the way which he dedicated for us, a new and living way, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh; and HAVING a great high priest over the house of God; let us draw near with a true heart in fullness of faith" (10:19-22a).

(NOTE: The drawing "near" that we do now[t hrough the "better hope" we have in Christ, 7:19] seems to be by means of sincere prayer and genuine worship and obedience, while we await the return of Christ, our great high priest, and the completion of our salvation [9:27-28; cf. John 14:1-3; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18] -- salvation "to the uttermost" [Hebrews 7:25]. Emphasis has been placed on "sincere" and "genuine," because Jesus said to some: "And ye have made void the word of God by your tradition. Ye hypocrites, well did Isaiah prophesy of you, saying This people honoreth me with their lips, But their heart is far from me. But in vain do they worship me, teaching as their doctrines the precepts of men" [Matthew 15:6b-9, ASV -- the KJV of v.6 reading, "This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoreth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me".])

Concluding Observations

1. The "things in the heavens," or the "heavenly things," must be the realities of which the earthly tabernacle and its furnishings and ministries were "copies," and would seem to include both the church on earth and the church of the redeemed in heaven (see 12:22-24). The Most Holy Place, which was an extension of it and through which the Most Holy Place was itself entered, must be the church on earth. This can be seen from the fact that Christians are said to occupy "heavenly places in Christ: (Ephesians 1:3; 2:6), and that "our citizenship is in heaven" (Philippians 3:20) -- the church being God's kingdom on earth, which, among other things, is called "the kingdom of heaven" (see Matthew 16:18-19).

2. Surely Milligan can hardly be faulted for rejecting the suggestion that heaven had to be cleansed with the blood of Christ because of the angels that had sinned and had been cast out as a result, as per 2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 6 -- for, as stated by Milligan, angels are not embraced in the premises of the Epistle to the Hebrews 9see 2:16-17).

3. Milligan did not have the answer to his own question, and we would do well not to be dogmatic with reference to it. But we may with profit investigate and consider its implications. His question was: "Can it be owing to the fact, that many of the saints were admitted into Heaven in anticipation of the death of Christ, and that though justified by faith, through the grace and forbearance of God, they nevertheless required the purifying application of the blood of Christ when shed, in order to make them absolutely holy. See notes on ch. 9:15."

Chapter 9:15, as cited by Milligan, states that Christ is "the mediator of a new covenant, that a death [his own] having taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first covenant, they that have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance."

But that does not say they had already received it. And Chapter 11:39-40, after giving examples from before and after the flood, and in both the Patriarchal and Mosaic dispensations, of men and women of faith, states: "And these all, having had witness borne to them through their faith, received not the promise, God having provided some better thing concerning US, that apart from US they should not be made perfect."

And of David, who was included in that roster of the faithful (11:32), the apostle Peter said on Pentecost after the resurrection and ascension of Christ, that "he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us unto this day," and specifically that "he ascended NOT into the heavens" (Acts 2:29,34).

Moreover, what was true of David could be expected to be true of all the others, unless Enoch (Hebrews 11:5-6) was an exception, who was changed so as not to experience death and was no longer found on earth, but likely taken either to Heaven or else to Hades, we know not which, except that the latter is primarily for the spirits of the dead before the resurrection -- and Elijah, not mentioned in Hebrews 11, would fall in the same category as Enoch (2 Kings 2:11-12).

But, even if these two were exceptions to what is said in Hebrews 11:39-40, they would hardly constitute Milligan's "many." Yet, if they were such exceptions and taken into Heaven instead of going to Hades, what Milligan said about the "many" defiling heaven could nevertheless conceivably be true of the presence of Enoch and Elijah.

Hades is the place of departed spirits between death and the resurrection, and is not represented as being emptied and done away with until the general resurrection and judgment (Revelation 20:11-15) -- at which time ("the last day") all the righteous dead will be raised (John 6:39,40,44,54). So it is likely that the spirits of all the dead remain in Hades till their bodies are raised. But Christ's spirit was not left in Hades, for he was raised from the dead (Acts 2:31), and forty days later ascended into heaven (1:3,9-11) -- the first, it would seem, to die no more (see Acts 13:34).

Also, in connection with the death and resurrection of Christ, "the veil of the temple was rent in two from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake; and many bodies of the saints that had fallen asleep were raised [which obviously meant that their spirits were not left in Hades either]; and coming forth out of the tombs after his resurrection they entered into the holy city and appeared unto many" (Matthew 27:51-53).

Question: Was their return to life only temporary, or did they ascend into heaven with Christ? That we cannot answer with certainty. But there is a possibility that the latter is correct. In Ephesians 4:8 is a reference to Psalm 68:18, which is applied to Christ, saying, "When he ascended on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men." This was according to the custom of triumphal entries of military generals after major victorious battles -- leading a contingent of captives as a proof of victory over enemies, and tossing gifts to persons along the route of march from booty taken in battle. The gifts to men in the case of Christ's return to heaven were spiritual gifts in the early church, according to Ephesians 4:11-12.

The purpose for which the quotation was made from Psalm 68:18 did not involve anything else than "the gifts unto men"; but the quotation itself did. It involved "a multitude of captives," as it is rendered in the margin of the King James Version. If this is perchance a reference to those raised after Christ's resurrection (which it may very well be), they had been Satan's captives till released by Christ and taken to heaven with him when he ascended and presented them along with himself as proof of his victory over Satan and death, which victory is referred to in Hebrews 2:14-15.

[Note: For an addittional analysis of when the spirits of the righteous depart from Hades refer to Where Will Your Spirit Go When You Die, Joe Mckinney, -rd]

4. Consider this, then: That (a) since Christ rose from the dead in the same body in which he died though it was changed from a mortal and corruptible to an immortal and incorruptible one, as per 1 Corinthians 15:53-54, and (b) since he had been "made to be sin on our behalf" (2 Corinthians 5:21), for "Jehovah hath laid on him the iniquity of us all" (Isaiah 53:6), could not (c) his entrance into heaven (and that of others if there were others with him) conceivably be thought of as defiling heaven and making it in need of cleansing before and until Christ had there symbolically offered his blood for cleansing and atonement, which he is represented as having done?

(In such event, the heavens would not necessarily be considered unholy "before" this, as per Barnes, mentioned above -- unless already possibly contaminated by receiving Enoch and Elijah --but would now be such until "cleansed" with the blood of Christ.)

5. Finally, though we cannot answer either Milligan;s or our own questions with certainty, we can nevertheless be tremendously profited by serious consideration of (a) the awful abhorrence of God for sin, (b) the equally awful consequences of sin and the penalty that must vicariously be paid for us if we are pardoned, and (c) the amazing, super-a-bounding grace of God displayed for human redemption from sin and its eternal penalty through Christ Jesus, our Lord, set forth by God to be "a propitiation, through faith, in his blood, . . . that he might himself be just and the justifier of him that hath faith in Jesus" (Romans 3:25-26; cf. 1 John 2:2-1), and (d) be constantly and increasingly grateful for it. That is the chief purpose we have in the foregoing considerations, though, as Paul exclaimed, "how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past tracing out!" (Romans 11:33).