It is profitable to seek to place ourselves in the circumstances of those to whom the New Testament scriptures were immediately addressed. Not that the same scriptures are not immediately applicable to ourselves; they are so because applying to that which is essential and characteristic; but by placing ourselves among those first addressed, we shall the better discern the way in which the Holy Ghost regards and uses the circumstances of the saints in communicating truth unto them. Indeed when circumstances are thus duly regarded, we shall find perspicuity given to many statements which otherwise might be general or vague; and this will be found especially the case, when any direct contrast with the habit of thought and tone of feeling of those addressed is intended.
A Hebrew under the law moved in a religious atmosphere. From his childhood he had been accustomed to look with veneration on the goodly buildings of the temple. He was instructed concerning sacrifice and incense. He was brought up to revere the consecrated priesthood. The priest in his consecrated garments, coming forth to bless the worshipping people, must have been an impressive though familiar object to him. He must necessarily have attached the most solemn importance to the unseen work of that priest within the holy place.
Now suppose such an one as this, taught of God, and so receiving his testimony concerning Christ, — he believes on Jesus, owning him as the Son of God, the Christ of God, and the Lamb of God. He finds peace in his soul unknown before; and he has confidence with God through Jesus Christ, by whom he has now received the reconciliation.
We know that thousands of Hebrews were thus brought into light and peace through faith in Jesus; to such was the Epistle to the Hebrews primarily addressed.
But how would such believers stand in relation to their former associations? Having personal peace of conscience through the blood of Jesus, would they continue worshippers according to the order of that economy in which they had been brought up? No. That which gave them peace would destroy every old association. Having learnt the preciousness of the blood, by finding through it remission of sins, they would have to learn it as equally precious, because by it they were redeemed from the "vain conversation received by tradition from their fathers." They would have access as worshippers to heaven itself — and that too as a holy priesthood, there to "worship the Father in spirit and in truth."
The consequence must be that in the city of solemnities itself such an one finds himself in the wilderness. He can no longer have fellowship with the multitude who keep holy-day. His temple and his High Priest are now in heaven and if he went up to the temple in Jerusalem at the hour of prayer, he there has to testify that Israel are blindly groping amidst the shadows, and that all the promises of God are yea and amen in him whom they had slain, but whom God had exalted to his own right hand. But though thus full of heavenly communion and intelligence, such an one would appear to the eyes of those around him as though he had been cut off from Israel yea, he might actually have been put out of the synagogue. (John 16:2.) If he would speak of worshipping God, he would have it cast in his teeth that he had neither sanctuary, nor altar, nor sacrifice, nor priest! Hard indeed must it have been to have maintained that he had all these, when apparently he could not point to one of them. Hard indeed to hold fast the confidence and rejoicing of the hope steadfast unto the end. But with a single eye to Jesus all this was possible. Yea there ought to have been a confidence and rejoicing in the assertion of what he had found, far superior to all that he had left. All he had left was visible and present indeed — things which were palpable to sense — and all he had found was known only to faith but still he could say what he had. He could testify that the only value of all that God once established amidst Israel was found in its representing that which he now in substance knew in heaven. And he could therefore say, "Taste and see that the Lord is gracious."
But how strange and irregular must it have appeared to such to assemble for worship without any single visible essential of worship; no prescribed or consecrated place; no sacrifice; no ministering priest. But here came in the profession — that all these they had. "We have," says the apostle, "such an High Priest, who is set on the right hand of the majesty in the heavens, a minister of the sanctuary, and of the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, and not man." Throughout this Epistle, the apostle takes most lofty ground. He takes his place as one with us — i.e. one of the Church and tells out what we have. He will not allow any pretension to interfere with ours. And he seeks to stir us up to the holding fast of our profession. But has there not been sad declension here? We have been false witnesses of the grace of God; as though he had not blessed us already so abundantly that we can, to the glory of his grace, challenge every pretension, and assert our profession to be yet higher. Oh that the Lord would lead our souls consciously to take this standing, that by it we might be able to contradict every pretension of the world and of the flesh, whether religious or otherwise! "We have a great High Priest that is passed into the heavens." "We have an hope as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which entereth into that within the veil." "We have an altar, whereof those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat." And, we have "a minister of the sanctuary."
Let us now turn to the consideration of the Lord Jesus, as this "Minister of the Sanctuary."
The apostle Paul was not a minister of the sanctuary; he worshipped there through the ministry of another. He had as much need of this ministry as any of his converts. He stood on the same level with them, in relation to ministry in the sanctuary. He had indeed a most blessed ministry, in a peculiar sense his own, the ministry of reconciliation among the Gentiles. He had received the reconciliation through Jesus Christ himself, and by his preaching others likewise received it; he could speak of it as special grace, that he should have been put in the ministry: "I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who hath enabled me, for that he counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry, who was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious." But he was not called out from the multitude of believers, as the priest was from the multitude of Israel, to minister for them before the Lord (Heb. 5) though he surely was a chosen vessel to bear the Lord's name to the Gentiles, and though he had a certain place of authority and eminence in the Church itself. But however distinct may have been his ministry, or even ministries, he was one of a common priesthood. He well knew that there were but two ranks in Christian priesthood the Great High Priest and the priests. He was one of the priests; and therefore, though he could magnify his office as an apostle of the Gentiles, he could not magnify his priesthood. Hence he writes authoritatively as the apostle, while before the Great High Priest he is but brother among brethren. The great subject of priesthood, which he so largely discusses in the Epistle to the Hebrews, demanded that the apostle should himself take the place of a worshipper that thus his own peculiar office might sink into nothing before the Apostle and High Priest of our profession, Christ Jesus. Thus does the apostle acknowledge and declare that Jesus, the Son of God, alone, is the representative Priest on the earth. Would that in this Paul had had more successors.
The apostle Paul then was a minister of the Gospel to every creature under heaven, and a minister too of Christ's body, the Church, on earth (Col. 1:23-25); but it was not by the intervention of his ministry that any worshipped. The disciples needed his instruction and guidance, and were to know that he had authority but they were enabled to worship as well in the absence as in the presence of the apostle. He might have led their worship, or he might have followed others in it. His office was lost, so to speak, when they stood together in the attitude of worshippers before the Great High Priest: he might have prayed with the disciples, (as Acts 20:36), or they with him (as Acts 21:5). It is indeed most important clearly to distinguish between the common standing of all regenerate persons as priests unto God, and diversities of ministry. Paul and Barnabas were set apart (Acts 13) for a distinct ministry to the Gentiles; but this was not setting them apart as ministers of the sanctuary. They could be ministers of the sanctuary in no other sense than that in which all saints minister there. If they presume to more than this, they must deny either the proper standing of the saints of God, or the alone place of the Son of God. For in the sense of being "ordained for men in things pertaining to God," Jesus is the ONLY minister of the sanctuary. It is therefore no light matter to set up such a pretension as that which an ordered priesthood certainly does. It interferes with the prerogative of Jesus. It is a fearful instance therefore of human presumption or ignorance.
The sanctuary in which Jesus ministers is not on earth, as that was in which Aaron ministered, but in heaven itself. Even there he is pre-eminent; "anointed with the oil of gladness above his fellows;" but all the redeemed saints of God worship there, through him, as equal one with another. But it is nevertheless true that God has now a ministry on earth, as well as a ministry in heaven. But these ministries differ most essentially. The ministry on earth goes forth from God to bring sinners to himself, upon the ground of his manifested love in the gift and sacrifice of his Son. The ministry of the sanctuary is a ministry on behalf of those already brought nigh unto God by the blood of Jesus. In the former there is nothing positively priestly. The minister of the Gospel does nothing for the sinner — for we preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord — but he proclaims what the Son of God has done; what God has wrought, and what God declares. On the other hand, the minister of the sanctuary is actually occupied with doing something for the worshipper; for those who have come to God through Jesus, and who have free access into the holiest of all. The minister of the Gospel has to tell sinners of the work of sacrifice; a work done on earth, a finished work, never to be repeated: but the work of the priest is continuous; it is a work on behalf of believers alone; a work for the true worshippers, and which they still need. To confound these ministries is sad confusion indeed. To make the ministry of the Gospel priestly in its character is to deceive sinners into the thought that they are worshippers; and it is at the same time entirely to obscure the blessed ministry of reconciliation. Nor is that error less dangerous which has confounded the ministry of the Spirit, by gift in the Church, with the true service of the one minister of the sanctuary. It is an awful invasion of his office to suppose that any in the Church are peculiarly priests.
Now if this great truth has been sufficiently cleared, that there may be many ministers of the gospel, and many specially gifted to minister in the Church, but only one minister of the sanctuary, it remains for us to consider the Lord Jesus in this office. And there are three points on which I would rest. 1st. — The minister himself. 2nd. — The place of his ministry. 3rd. — The character of his service and our special interest in it.
1. "We have such an High Priest." The person of our Great High Priest, and the connection between his person and his office, having been already rested on in a previous paper, I would now say, that this language is in its character boasting. And it is rightly so; for we may glory in the Lord. It is right to challenge any comparison with him; and to leave who will to draw the conclusion. But this is not all said of him here: it is added, "who is set down at the right hand of the majesty in the heavens." It has been noticed already, that the attitude of sitting down, contrasted with the standing of Aaron, shows that the one has completed the work of sacrifice, which the other never did. But there is this also to be noticed — the place in which he is seated, "on the right hand of the throne of the majesty in the heavens." How every expression of honour and dignity seems to be collected together here. What a seat is this! There is our High Priest seated! And there is this other blessed truth; — he has taken his seat there at the call of God. "The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand till I make thy enemies thy footstool." Aaron was called of God, but he was never called upon to sit down even in the worldly sanctuary. He was never even spoken with as Moses, face to face by God. He was not up in the Mount with God in the glory as was Moses, he was below with the people. But what a value was stamped by God on the sacrificial work of Christ when he was thus called of him. The exaltation of Jesus to the seat on which he now sits proves most abundantly the value of the blood he has shed. How precious that blood must be to God — how perfect its efficacy in his sight! Let us often meditate on the dignity of our High Priest as shown, not only by his person, but also by the seat unto which he has been called of God; remembering that he has taken that seat in consequence of his having "by himself purged our sins."
The word here rendered "minister" is not the word ordinarily applied to the ministry of the Gospel. The apostle Paul does indeed once apply it to himself (Rom. 15) — "the minister of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles;" but in that instance the apostle is not speaking of ordinary Gospel ministry, but of his own special ministry as the apostle of the uncircumcision. This instance therefore only serves to mark the peculiar force of the term. It properly means one who sustains some distinct and onerous office for the public good; and, in some instances, at his own cost: such, for example, as the sheriff among ourselves.
The word has been transferred to our language in liturgy; the public service of God. It might therefore be rendered — "as soon as the days of his ministration [liturgy] were accomplished." (Luke 1:23.) Zacharias, as a priest, performed divine service for the people. So it is said of the Lord a little below in this eighth chapter, "but now hath he obtained a more excellent ministry" [liturgy]; more excellent than that of Zacharias or the Jewish priests. He alone performs divine service for others. He does this as the great public minister of the Church in heaven. Any number among the saints might minister and fast before the Lord on earth (Acts 13), but they did not stand in such a relation to God as is involved in performing a service for others which they could not undertake. No saint stands towards God in such a relation to any other saint; — if any assume it, they in this assume the exclusive prerogative of the Son of God.
I believe that our souls are little aware of the deadening effect of looking to any set of men to perform public service for us to God. It must necessarily take away the soul from immediate dependence on the great public minister, and his divine service in heaven. It is not that every one is qualified to lead the public worship of the saints, any more than that every one is qualified to teach the saints or to preach the gospel; but there are none who stand in the same relation to the Church that Zacharias did to the Jews. (Luke 1.) None who are called to perform service for them, so that if such a person was wanting, the saints could not worship. Let the saints ever remember this, and guard against any intrusion on that office solely belonging to the Great High Priest. Divine service is now performed in heaven by the one Great High Priest, and he is jealous of the intrusion of any into this his office; as he was when Korah and his company intruded into the office of those whom he once ordained to perform divine service on the earth.
Divine service, then, is only performed for us in heaven. We may, i.e. all Christians may, perform it on earth before the Lord, as did they of Antioch. (Acts 13) I do not at all doubt the antiquity of liturgies, nor raise any question as to their spirituality; but this I may safely affirm, that not a vestige is there found in the New Testament of an ordered ritual; and that a liturgy could have had no place in the Church, till it had lost the sense of the One who performs divine service in heaven, by going back to the pattern of an earthly priesthood; and how all the systems, with which we now see liturgies connected, show that such declension there has been. That such was the tendency even in the apostles' days, the epistle to the Hebrews abundantly proves. That some had drawn back and neglected the assembling of themselves together is distinctly stated. And as the Spirit of God in this epistle expressly meets such a condition of things, this epistle becomes of peculiar value to the saints in days like the present, when Satan is so plainly working in the same way.
Remember, it is no question between the comparative advantage of one ritual above another; or whether there may not be evangelical truth and spiritual breathing in a liturgy; it is a much more solemn question. It is a question concerning the assumption by men of an office belonging alone to the Son of God. Korah and his company might have intended to adhere ever so strictly to the directions for priestly service; but that was not the question; it was one of personal intrusion into an office unto which God had not called them. Indeed, they perished with censers and incense in their hands; the controversy of God was with them. And just so is it of all false assumption of office in the Church. It is not a question of what may or may not be done in the office; it is the intrusion into it which is so fearful a sin; for is not reproach cast upon the ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ in heaven — is he not trodden under foot, if the thought is allowed of the necessity of any one person, or any order of persons, to perform divine service for us on earth? "We have" — blessed be his name! — "a minister of the sanctuary" always performing divine service for us above. Be it our soul's joy to know it more and more.
2. We must now glance at the place of his ministry; his "more excellent ministry." "A minister of the sanctuary, and of the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, and not man."
Moses was indeed faithful; he did everything, "as the Lord commanded Moses," unto the most minute detail. Everything was made according to the direction of God; all the vessels of ministry were arranged in the order prescribed. "And he reared up the court round about the tabernacle, and the altar, and set up the hanging of the court gate. So Moses finished the work. Then a cloud covered the tent of the congregation, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle; and Moses was not able to enter into the tent of the congregation, because the cloud abode thereon, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle." This was the tabernacle which man had pitched; beautiful indeed and glorious, yet not the true tabernacle; it was only the shadow of that. And now the shadow is past; as it is said, "a shadow of good things to come, but the body is of Christ." But still, do not our minds linger around the earthly shadows, and become occupied with the things made with hands, instead of those which are made without hands?
In the true tabernacle there is no human instrumentality whatever; all is of God. The furniture and the vessels, all so curiously wrought, are now only to be found in the various graces and several offices of the Lord Jesus Christ — "the body is of Christ." And all these are now displayed and exercised in heaven for us; he can stand in the immediate presence of God, there presenting for us his own fulness of excellency. Moses, the servant, could not bear the glory conferred on the tabernacle he had pitched; he was much inferior to that which his own hands had reared; but Christ as a Son is over his own house, and is himself its furniture and its glory.
What a solemn lesson are we taught here concerning earthly and human things. Human instrumentality that which is "made with hands" — "of this building" (creation) — whether respect to place, persons, or things, ever fails, and is all disowned of God. Nothing will stand but that which is "made without hands," i.e., of God. Men may think they honour God by rearing magnificent buildings, and dignifying them with the name of temple, or house of God; but they cannot be the true, because man and not God has founded them. Their device and their order all show them to be of the earth. It is well indeed if the very appearance of our worship here testifies that it is not of the worldly order and pattern. And this will be so, the more we realize that the place of worship is now changed from earth to heaven. There it is that the minister of the sanctuary exercises his most blessed office. The Lord Jesus Christ exercised no such ministry on earth; "for if he were on earth, he should not be a priest;" and therefore our place of worship must be heaven, because there are no accredited priests of God on earth to offer gifts or to perform divine service. (v. 4.)
3: And now briefly as to the ministry itself. For the Lord Jesus Christ ministers unto God in the priest's office; ministering for us in it, "we have such an High Priest."
The ministry of Aaron before God was in one of its parts representative; he bore the names of the children of Israel on his shoulders and on his heart, "when he went into the holy place, for a memorial before the Lord continually." This blessed ministry the Lord Jesus sustains for us. But not occasionally, as Aaron when he went in, but constantly; he appears in the presence of God for us. He ever presents the saints before God as associated with all his own fulness of excellency and glory. And this in the presence of God within the veil, as it is said, "whither the forerunner is for us entered." And again, "for Christ is not entered into the holy places made with hands, which are the figures of the true, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us." How blessed is this: our names written in heaven, not in precious stones, but as "a seal upon his heart, and as a seal upon his arm." In manifesting his own perfectness and glory in the presence of God, Jesus appears for us! The real identification of the Church with Christ was but faintly shadowed by the garments of glory and beauty worn by Aaron.
Then there was also the ministry of incense. This was a most precious ministry, because it was the medium of the worship of the people. But the offering of incense — all variously compounded as it was — was only occasional, and it might be interrupted. The fragrance of it was not perpetually before God. The plague had begun among the people, destructive judgment had come forth, when Moses bid Aaron take "a censer and put fire therein from off the altar, and put on incense;" all this had to be done before Aaron could run into the congregation and stand between the dead and the living. "Behold, the plague was begun among the people; and he put on incense, and made an atonement for the people and the plague was stayed." (Num. 16.) But now the ministry of incense is perpetual: "He ever liveth to make intercession for us." Hence he is able to save right through, from the beginning to the end. No plague of destructive judgment can come forth against the Church because of this. It is constantly upheld in perfectness by the power of the intercession of Jesus. It is this which ever keeps it in its right place before God, however infirm or erring here.
The blessedness of the ministry of him who ministers for us in the true tabernacle is, that it is entirely independent of us. It is by him for us. Our conscious enjoyment of it will depend indeed on our walk, on our humbleness, on our self-judgment, on many things but the ministry itself depends alone on our unfailing High Priest. He is a faithful minister, ever performing his functions in a manner well-pleasing to God; whether our souls are realizing the value of what he is doing or not. Every saint is upheld by the intercession of Jesus even in his most thoughtless mood. Priesthood is part of the work of grace — grace that provides for the putting away our every sin, and aiding our every infirmity, and bearing our every waywardness, in order that we may never be out of the presence of God. Hence, the moment the conscience of a careless saint is reawakened, he may find full and instant access to God, because, though he has failed, the minister of the sanctuary has not. Long before he is alive to his failure, he is debtor to the ministry of Jesus for having been kept from falling. Little did Simon think of the sifting power of Satan, but the Lord, who had prayed that his faith might not fail, could point out to him his danger. And so with us oftentimes. We see our failures, or the might and craft of our enemies, and then how precious is the thought that the intercession of Jesus for us has been over all. We are led to value the intercession of Jesus — after failure or danger is discovered — as surely Peter was; but its real value is, that it is perpetually offered, and perpetually prevalent. However we may fail, therefore, the resources of faith can never fail; for faith reaches out to God, and God's provisions of grace in Jesus, over every failure. If there be one deeper anguish of soul than another, it surely must be for a saint to become conscious of sin, but to be without faith to look to God's gracious provision to meet it; but Jesus prays that our faith may not fail.
We are apt to regard the intercession of Christ only as occasionally exercised on our behalf, and exercised because we have applied to it; yea, we know that men have gone so far as to make it appear that the intercession of Jesus was only to be called out by a secondary intercession of others, such as the Virgin, or departed saints, or the Church. But how false is all this! No; his ministry is marked by the same grace now as when on earth. "I have prayed for thee" was his word to Simon Peter. And so when he saw the multitudes fainting, he well knew what he would do, and do without being asked. And so now, his intercession is of the same grace; it is according to his own divine and gracious estimate of our many needs. He knows how, in our practical danger, weakness, and foolishness, we look in the eye of God, and he ever makes intercession for us accordingly; maintaining us thus in his own fragrant perfectness. In the challenge of the apostle as to where a charge can be brought against God's elect, he winds up all with this, as though he could go no higher, "who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us."
In another aspect the present ministry of Jesus is one of offering; as it is said "wherefore it is of necessity that this man have somewhat also to offer." Or, as it is subsequently said, "in which were offered gifts that could not make him that did the service perfect as pertaining to the conscience."
Under the law, the worshipper might bring his offering to the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, but then the priestly ministration began. The priest must lay it on the altar, where alone it could be accepted of the Lord. The worshipper himself could not offer immediately to the Lord. It was only through the priestly ministration that it was an offering made by fire, a sweet savour unto the Lord. But now it is by the offering of Jesus himself, once for all, that we are sanctified as worshippers. Jesus gave himself an offering and a sacrifice unto God of a sweet-smelling savour; and now whatever comes up to God through him has the value of his own offering attached to it, and is of a sweet-smelling savour also. Thus God perpetually attests his own value of the offering of Jesus; even by accepting as precious, through him, all done or offered in his name. To ask in the name of Jesus is therefore of unfailing efficacy, because God is always well-pleased in him. We know, as priests, the divine estimate of him through whom we draw near to offer. What a comfort then it is to be assured that our persons, our prayers, our thanksgivings, and our services, have all of them, before God, the sweet savour of the name of Jesus set upon them. Everything we desire or do, as having the Spirit of Christ Jesus, however mingled, or however feeble, is thus accepted for Jesus' sake.
And remember he is a perpetual offerer, as well as a perpetual interceder. He himself says of those who know not God in him and through him, "Their sorrows shall be multiplied that hasten after another god: their drink-offerings of blood will I not offer, nor take up their names into my lips." But to us, because of this his ministry for us, the word is, "By him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks [making confession] in his name."
It was the priest alone who knew how to appropriate the sacrifice; he only knew what was for God, what for himself, what for the worshipper, and what was refuse. It is indeed most blessed for us that there is a minister for us which separates the precious from the vile; and which orders all according to God. Our Great High Priest thus ministers for us. He takes up that which seems to us so clogged with infirmity and so mingled with impurity, that we can discern no preciousness in it; and, separating the precious from the vile, he offers what is really of the Spirit in the full value of his own offering. If any soul is awakened to the desire of serving the Lord, what sorrow have they found in having to learn the wretched imperfectness of all that which they attempt. But if thus we are oftentimes dispirited and ready to grow weary in well-doing, let us remember this present ministration of Jesus for us; such should know its value, for their labour is not in vain in the Lord. How will "Well done, good and faithful servant," gladden the heart of many by and by, who here have only deplored their constant failures. Think you, dear brethren, that the Philippians thought their trifling remembrance of the apostle Paul would have found its way before God as an offering made by fire of a sweet-smelling savour unto God? But it did. The apostle, in communion with the Great High Priest, could see him take it up and present it in his own name. (Phil. 4:18.) Thus they were producing fruit, through Jesus, precious unto God; even as just before the apostle had said to them, "being filled with the fruits of righteousness, which are by Jesus Christ unto the praise and glory of God." (Phil. 1:11.)
Yes, let the saints as priests judge themselves and their works, and if they find, as they assuredly will find, but little of the precious, let them know the one who judges above, and who delights to take out the precious and present it to God in his own perfectness. Oh if it were not for this ministry on high, how could we read the word, "To do good and to communicate forget not, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased."