Hebrews: The Curtain of the Holy of Holies


As you may recall, in one of my recent posts I had mentioned that I had just finished reading through Hebrews again. And while reading through Hebrews, I was again reminded of the foreshadowing and symbolism that covered every aspect of the Tabernacle. In particular, the curtain or veil that blocked the entrance to the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle really stood out. In Hebrews Chapter 9, the author tells us that this tabernacle worship system taught Israel about salvation in a highly symbolic way.

Hebrews 9:1-7 NIV
“Now the first covenant had regulations for worship and also an earthly sanctuary. A tabernacle was set up. In its first room were the lampstand and the table with its consecrated bread; this was called the Holy Place. Behind the second curtain was a room called the Most Holy Place, which had the golden altar of incense and the gold-covered ark of the covenant. This ark contained the gold jar of manna, Aaron’s staff that had budded, and the stone tablets of the covenant. Above the ark were the cherubim of the Glory, overshadowing the atonement cover. But we cannot discuss these things in detail now. When everything had been arranged like this, the priests entered regularly into the outer room to carry on their ministry. But only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance.”

The author of Hebrews reminded the Jewish Christians of the Old Testament foreshadows and how they predict the salvation that God would bring through His Messiah.

Some of the Essentials

First of all, the tabernacle was always to be set up in the midst of Israel’s campsite.  This symbolized God’s desire to dwell among his people. God does not desire to be aloof or distant—he desires to be accessible to us.  In fact, he desires to dwell inside us both individually and corporately.

But there is a problem, and the tabernacle symbolized this problem…

Any Israelite could go into the outer court of the tabernacle as long as they were ritually clean, but there were restrictions and barriers that prevented most people from getting any closer to God.  Only the Levitical priests could go into the Holy Place.  And no one (with one exception) could go into God’s dwelling-place, the Holy of Holies.  A thick veil separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies—like God was saying: “Yes, I desire to have you in my presence—but you are not allowed in My presence due to the way that you are.  There is a serious problem that separates us, and until that problem is resolved there can be no real closeness between us.”  That problem was explained (symbolically) by what was inside the Holy of Holies…

The only piece of furniture in the Holy of Holies was a box called the “ark of the covenant.”  Every article in this box was highly symbolic:

Inside the box were three things that symbolized the problem God had with the Israelites.:

  1. There was a jar of manna.  This was the food that God supernaturally provided for the Israelites during their 40 years in the wilderness.  This was the same food that the Israelites complained about—so it symbolized their ungrateful rejection of God’s provision.
  2. There was also Aaron’s walking stick.  This stick represented God’s leadership through Moses and Aaron.  Over and over again the Israelites rebelled against their leadership—so that God had to vindicate that Moses and Aaron were his chosen leaders by supernaturally causing his staff to bud.  So this staff symbolized their rebellion against God’s leadership.
  3. Finally, there were the 10 Commandments—the two stone tablets that summarized God’s law.  Even as Moses brought these tablets down from Mt. Sinai, the Israelites were having an idolatrous orgy.  Moses furiously threw them down and smashed them—so God made another copy and told him to put them in the ark.  They symbolized their disobedience to God’s law.

The problem that God had with the Israelites is basically the same problem that He has with all of us when we were in our unrepentant worldly state.

On top of the ark stood two statues of cherubim—angelic beings who are associated with banishment from God’s presence (Gen.3:24.)  The cherubim’s faces were directed downward, into the contents of the ark.  It’s like they are saying: “This is the problem.” And that’s the point.  Yes, God loves us. Yes, it is not God’s will that any should perish (2 Peter 3:9), yes God desires to have personal closeness with us.  But he can’t—because we have violated his holy righteous character in many of our self conscious and self directed ways.

And if this was all there was in the Holy of Holies, this would be a very depressing message. But there was something else—something called the “mercy seat.”  It was the lid over top of the ark—and what happened on this lid symbolized God’s solution to our problem with him. Because God is holy, and so different from us, our sinful nature cannot coincide with Him and this means we remain separated, and ultimately this brings death.  But because God is loving, he provided a way to judge our sin without judging us.  He provided a substitute who was killed in our place.

Once a year, the High Priest selected a goat without any physical defect.  After symbolically transferring the nation’s guilt for that year on to the goat by laying his hands on the goat’s head, the goat was slain and its blood (demonstrating his death) was carried in by the High Priest into the Holy of Holies and poured out onto the mercy seat.

The blood covered the lid so that the cherubim now “see” the death rather than the sins.  The sins have been covered by the substitute’s death.  After pouring out this blood, the High Priest came back out and laid his hands on another defect-free goat.  Then he sent the goat off into the wilderness.  Symbolically, then, God’s judgment for their sins was “sent off” because of the death of the first goat.

This ritual sacrifice on the Day of Atonement, then, was a beautiful picture of God’s plan of forgiveness.  But it was never more than a temporary and defective picture—it never actually solved the problem of our separation from God.  This is what the author emphasizes in Hebrews 9:8-10..

The high priests were sinful people just like us, not sinless mediators (Hebrews 9:7).

They only went into a man-made tent, not into the actual heavenly presence of God.

The sacrifices they offered were only animals, not human.  (In fact, the Old Testament strictly forbade human sacrifice.  It demanded human death for human guilt, but prohibited sinful human sacrifices.)

The tabernacle system only cleansed people ceremonially/symbolically (re-qualified them to come into the outer court), it only temporarily covered over the people’s sin.  The proof of this is two-fold: the sacrifices had to be repeated every year, and even then the worshippers couldn’t go into God’s presence.  As Hebrews 9:10 says, it only applied until God brought the real solution…

Fulfillment in Jesus

Hebrews 9:11,12.  Here is where the good news comes in!  Jesus came as the fulfillment of the Old Testament tabernacle system:

He was the real high priest—from a superior priestly order, and a sinless High Priest who is therefore qualified to fix our sin problems with God because he doesn’t have any of his own sin problems.

He went into the real tabernacle—the actual presence of God—with his solution.

He voluntarily offered his own blood—his own perfect and sinless life—to pay for our sins.

Therefore, he has accomplished a permanent solution for our guilt before God—he has died “once for all” and obtained an “eternal redemption.”  Hebrews 9:13-14.  The most that the Old Testament sacrifices could grant was ritual cleansing—the right to go into the outer court.  But Jesus’ sacrifice actually removes our guilt and cleanses our conscience (experience God’s forgiveness) so that we can serve (“worship”) God and enjoy his personal presence!

This is why Jesus, just before he died on the cross, cried out “It is finished” (John 19:30).  What was finished?  All of the Old Testament sacrifices and the whole tabernacle system were finished, because what they symbolized was now accomplished by his death!  And this is why the moment Jesus died, the veil between the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies was torn in two, from the top to the bottom (Matthew 27:51).  The separation between us and God that had stood so long because our sins was now bridged by Jesus death.  The way into God’s presence was open for everyone—as long as we individually acknowledge who Jesus is and accept what Jesus did for us.

The implications that flow from Jesus’ death are huge.  It changes the whole way we relate to God. And this is what is implied by the Temple veil being torn when Jesus died. Notice that the curtain was torn from the top (from God, to the bottom, to humanity) not from the bottom (humanity via works) up to the top (gains access to God) as indicated in other world religions.

That’s also what the author of Hebrews says in Hebrews 7:18-19.  He also says this in Hebrews 8:13 .  When the author of Hebrews wrote this, the Temple was still in operation—but he said it was obsolete and he said it was about to disappear. This actually happened approximately ten years later when the Romans destroyed the Temple. Now that the real High Priest has entered the real Tabernacle having offered the real Sacrifice, there are no longer any requirements for ritual sacrifices/services. Christianity is about a personal loving relationship with God where we can experience His presence, here now, it is no longer about ritualistic worship.

In the Old Testament, God prescribes many rituals, and he gives detailed instructions on how to observe these rituals (because of their symbolic/prophetic significance).  But when you go past Jesus’ death, this changes dramatically.  This contrast is because the Old Testament worship system was a liturgy of ritual observances—but the New Testament worship is a loving relationship with God and others .

Worthy is the Lamb! Blessings!


  1. I really enjoyed this. I once heard that if you look at each placement of the tabernacle items they form a cross. Ever heard that? Pretty neat


  2. Excellent, Bruce! Question: I have never studied this, but have heard, that the ark of the covenant be found before or during the tribulation period? Does that ring a bell from your study?


    • Hi Jeff, I salted away an article a couple of years ago which had the following paragraph in it: “A curious prophecy of Jeremiah suggests that the Ark of the Covenant will return to the Temple before Christ sets up His millennial kingdom. ‘Then it shall come to pass, when you are multiplied and increased in the land in those days,’ says the Lord, ‘that they will say no more, ‘The ark of the covenant of the Lord.’ It shall not come to mind, nor shall they remember it, nor shall they visit it, nor shall it be made any more’ (Jeremiah 3:16). The prophet declared that, once the Messiah returns, the Ark will no longer ‘come to mind,’ nor will ‘they visit it.’ Since Israel has not possessed the Ark for almost three thousand years, this prophecy suggests that the Jews will ‘visit’ and’ talk’ about the Ark just before the return of Christ. However, once the Messiah comes, their worship and attention will turn to Christ.” That’s the only time I seem to be able to recollect running into anything like what you mentioned. Hope this helps!

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      • It does! So if it is before the millennial reign, then it could be, maybe during the seven year tribulation period, or even before the “rapture”, the gathering of the saints in the clouds. We went to Israel last summer and some things make so much more real to life sense after seeing so many Biblical sites! On the other hand, I have far more questions now!

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