Bibliotheca Sacra 130 (October, 1973) 305-314.

          Copyright © 1973 by Dallas Theological Seminary.  Cited with permission.

 

 

 

                            The Blood of Jesus and His

                        Heavenly Priesthood in Hebrews

 

                            Part III: The Meaning of "The True Tent" and

                                    "The Greater and More Perfect Tent"

 

                                             Philip Edgcumbe Hughes

 

            THE TENT AS THE INCARNATE BODY OF CHRIST

 

            A number of commentators have interpreted these two expres-

sions as signifying the body or humanity of Christ. Owen, for

example, expounds "the true tent" of Hebrews 8:2 as meaning "the

human nature of the Lord Christ himself,"1 explaining that "he is the

only way and means of our approach unto God in holy worship,

as the tabernacle was of old,"2 that "the human nature of Christ

is the only true tabernacle wherein God would dwell personally and

substantially,'''3 and that "we are to look for the gracious presence

of God in Christ only."4 Bengel is among those who are of a similar

mind. The rather long and involved sentence which comprises He-

brews 9:11-12 may be paraphrased as follows:

 

            After coming (to earth) as high priest of the good things fulfilled by

            his coming, Christ achieved our eternal redemption and then entered

            once and for all into the sanctuary, through the greater and more

            perfect tent not made with hands, that is not of this creation, and

            (he did so) not through the blood of goats and bullocks but through

            his own blood.

 

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the third in a series of articles entitled "The

Blood of Jesus and His Heavenly Priesthood in the Epistle to the Hebrews,"

which were the W. H. Griffith Thomas Memorial Lectures given by Dr.

Philip Edgcumbe Hughes at Dallas Theological Seminary on November 14-17,

1972.

 

1 John Owen, An Exposition to the Epistle to the Hebrews (Philadelphia,

1869), VI, 18.

2 Ibid., VI, 19.

3 Ibid., VI, 21.

4 Ibid., VI, 23.

                                                305



306   /   Bibliotheca Sacra — October 1973

 

Chrysostom and some later patristic authors, including Theodoret,

Primasius, and Ecumenius, understood this "greater and more per-

fect tent" to denote the body which the Son assumed in the incarna-

tion, and this understanding has had distinguished advocates ever

since.

            The justification for this interpretation is sought in the symboli-

cal usage of the term "tent" (skhnh<) elsewhere in the New Testa-

ment. Christ Himself spoke of His body as "this temple" (nao<j)

which He would raise up in three days (John 2:19-22; cf. Mark 14:58;

1 5:29) — the allusion being primarily to His resurrection from the

dead, but also, more cryptically, to the impending cessation of the

temple worship which was historically the successor of the tent wor-

ship in the wilderness and functionally synonymous with it. John

describes the incarnation of the Word as the "pitching of his tent"

(e]skh<nwsen) in our midst (John 1:14). Paul calls our present mortal

body "our earthly tent dwelling" (h[ e]pi<geioj h[mw?n oi]ki<a tou? skh<nouj)

and also quite simply "the tent" (to< skh?noj) (2 Cor. 5:1, 4). Peter

uses the same metaphor when he refers to his approaching death

as "the laying aside of his tent" (h[ a]po<qesij tou? skhnw<matoj mou?) (2

Peter 1:13, 14). And, in a manner reminiscent of John 2:19 ff., Paul

writes of the body of the Christian as the temple or sanctuary of

the Holy Spirit (nao<j) (1 Cor. 6:19; 2 Cor. 6:16).

            On the basis of this symbolism, then, "the true tent" of Hebrews

8:2 and "the greater and more perfect tent" of Hebrews 9:11 are

interpreted as a manner of speaking of the human body by means

of which Christ accomplished our eternal redemption, for it was

this body that enabled Him to function as our high priest and in

particular to offer Himself in our place on the cross. This "tent" can

be described as "true" or "greater and more perfect" in comparison

with the tabernacle of old because of the eternal perfection of the

atonement which has been procured through its instrumentality. But

the fuller definition of Hebrews 9:11, namely, that it is "not made

with hands, that is, not of this creation," raises some problems. For

while the qualification "not made with hands" suggests a contrast

with the former tent which, though erected in accordance with the

divine pattern, was a human construction from earthly materials,

the explanation of this phrase as meaning "not of this creation"

would appear to call in question the genuineness of that humanity

supposedly designated as "the greater and more perfect tent," and

therefore to render doubtful the reality of the Son's identification of

Himself with mankind.



                                The "Tents" in Hebrews   /   307

 

            Theophylact, indeed, in the eleventh century, states that this

text was adduced by heretics as proof that Christ's body was of a

docetic or ethereal character.5 Heretical conclusions of this kind

were customarily countered, however, by the explanation that the

miracle of the virgin birth afforded adequate justification for defin-

ing Christ's humanity as being "not of this creation." It is the ex-

planation given, for example, by Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth

century; and Cornelius a Lapide, in the seventeenth century, gives

a good summary of this type of exegesis (without himself ap-

proving it):

            This is the greater tabernacle because in it God the Word is and

            dwells and all the fulness of the Holy Spirit; it is more perfect

            because it achieves greater things than did the old Mosaic taber-

            nacle and sanctifies and saves those who enter into it. This taber-

            nacle is not made with hands, nor of this creation, because the flesh

            of Christ was not conceived by the work of man but by virtue of

            the Holy Spirit.6

 

Turning to the Protestant commentators, Owen does not specifically

mention the virgin birth, but his explanation of "not of this creation"

is to the same effect: "Although the substance of his human nature

was of the same kind with ours," he writes, "yet the production

of it in the world was such an act of divine power as excels all

other divine operations whatever. . . . in its constitution and pro-

duction it was an effect of the divine power above the whole order

of this creation."7 Calvin expounds the phrase more vaguely. While

admitting that the body of Christ "was certainly created of the seed

of Abraham and subject to sufferings and death," he maintains that

at this point the author "is not concerned here with the material

body or its quality but with the spiritual power which comes to

us from it."8 His exegesis of the "tent" concept in terms of Christ's

body is, however, very plainly stated, as follows:

            The word sanctuary is properly and fittingly applied to the body

            of Christ because it is the temple in which the whole majesty of

            God dwelt. He is said to have made through His body a way to

            ascend into heaven because He consecrated Himself to God in that

 

5 Theophylact Expositio in Epistolam ad Hebraeos ix. 11.

6 Cornelius 'a Lapide, Commentarri in Scripturam Sacram (Lyons and Paris,

1864)., IX, 949.

7 Owen, VI, 271.

8 John Calvin, The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews and the

First and Second Epistles of St. Peter, trans. by William B. Johnston. Calvin

Commentaries, ed. by David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance (Grand

Rapids, 1963), XII, 120.



308   /   Bibliotheca Sacra — October 1973

 

            body: in it He was sanctified to be true righteousness and in it He

            prepared Himself to make His sacrifice.... He has entered heaven

            through His own body because He now sits on the right hand of

            the Father. He intercedes for us in heaven because He has put

            on our flesh and consecrated it as a temple to God the Father and

            has sanctified Himself in it to make atonement for our sins and

            gain for us eternal righteousness.9

 

Owen seems to be no less confident that this is the correct interpre-

tation, as the following excerpts show:

                 This tabernacle, whereby he came a high priest, was his own

            human nature. . . . Herein dwelt "the fulness of the Godhead

            bodily," Col. ii.9,--that is, substantially; represented by all the

            pledges of God's presence in the tabernacle of old. This was that

            tabernacle wherein the Son of God administered his sacerdotal

            office in this world, and wherein he continueth yet so to do in his

            intercession. . . . The human nature of Christ, wherein he discharged

            the duties of his sacerdotal office in making atonement for sin, is

            the greatest, the most perfect and excellent ordinance of God; far

            excelling those that were most excellent under the old testament.10

 

            There is, undoubtedly, much that is attractive in this line of

interpretation. But, well suited though it may be to teaching which

is found elsewhere in the New Testament, there are reasons for

regarding it as exegetically inappropriate within the present context

of the Epistle to the Hebrews. For one thing, in the passages cited

in support of this interpretation the association between the tent,

or the temple, and the body is clearly indicated; but there is no such

indication in our epistle. For another, when Christ speaks of raising

in three days a temple not made with hands ("he spoke of the temple

of his body," as the evangelist explains in John 2:21), it is clear

that He intended the glorified body with which He rose from the

dead (John 2:22); and likewise when Paul teaches that, even though

his present earthly tent dwelling should be dismantled in death,

the Christian has "a building from God, a house not made with

hands, eternal in the heavens," he too is referring to that ultimate

transformation in which the believer is invested with a glorified body

similar to that of the risen Jesus. Guided by this understanding,

exegetical consistency would surely demand that "the true tent"

and "the greater and more perfect tent" should be explained as

referring (if indeed this is what our author means) not to the body

assumed by Christ at Bethlehem but rather to the glorious body of

 

9 Ibid.

10 Owen, VI, 266, 267.


                                                    The "Tents" in Hebrews   /   309

 

His resurrection — not, of course, that there are two bodies, but

two different states of the same body: the one humble, the other

exalted; the one earth-bound, the other transcendental (as Paul

teaches in 1 Cor. 15:42 ff.).

 

            THE TENT AS THE CHURCH

            Another interpretation, which starts virtually from the same

premise but follows a somewhat different course, is that which makes

use of the Pauline identification of the church as the body of

Christ (Eph. 1:22 f.). Cornelius a Lapide, indeed, takes our author

to be speaking of the church quite simply, without any allusion

to the concept of the body of Christ. Thus he writes on Hebrews 9:11:

            I conclude that this tabernacle is the Church of Christ gathered

            here on earth, pilgrim and militant, which Christ himself founded,

            of which he said in ch. 8:2 that it is a tabernacle set up by the

            Lord and not by man; for this is identical with the description here,

            "a tabernacle not made with hands, not of this creation," in other

            words, not the product of human skill and fashioning, as was the

            first tabernacle fashioned by Bezaleel. For the tabernacle fittingly

            represents the Church ... in which Christ in dying on the cross

            offered himself to the Father, as a victim for the sins of men; and

            just as the high priest used to go from and through the holy place

            into the holy of holies, so Christ (and we with Christ) passed from

            his Church militant here on earth to the Church heavenly and

            triumphant.11

 

The step of linking the concepts of "body" and "church" is delib-

erately taken by, Westcott, whose search for "some spiritual antitype

to the local sanctuary"12 is controlled by the prerequisites which

demand that it must both "represent the Presence of God" and also

"offer a way of approach to God"13 — requirements which he be-

lieves are met in the redeemed and perfected humanity which is

the community of the church. He states:

            Through this glorified Church answering to the complete humanity

            which Christ assumed, God is made known, and in and through

            this each believer comes nigh to God. In this Body, as a spiritual

            Temple, Christ ministers. As members of this Body believers sev-

            erally enjoy the Divine Presence. . . . It enables us to connect re-

            deemed humanity with the glorified human Nature of the Lord,

            and to consider how it is that humanity, the summing-up of Crea-

            tion, may become in Him the highest manifestation of God to finite

 

11 Cornelius a Lapide, IX, 949.

12 Brook Foss Westcott, The Epistle to the Hebrews (London, 1889),

p. 259.

13 Ibid., p. 258.



310   /   Bibliotheca Sacra — October 1973

 

            being, and in its fulness that through which each part is brought

            near to God.14

 

            But this interpretation, too, has its problems. It is reached by

using one metaphor (the tent for the body) as the basis for another

metaphor (the body for the church), with the consequence that the

exegesis has a distinctly mystical quality. It reflects, moreover, a

characteristic tendency of Westcott's thought in accordance with

which Christ is regarded, evolutionistically, as Consummator Mundi,

the one in whom the whole unfolding process achieves its culmina-

tion--hardly the perspective of the writer of Hebrews! And in any

case it is difficult to see what sense there could be in saying, as

according to Westcott's understanding we must suppose the author

of our epistle to be saying, that "through the greater and more per-

fect tent," that is His body understood as signifying the church,

Christ entered once for all into the sanctuary; for, however rightly

Christ may be said to work or minister through the church, there

is no way in which one can speak of His having entered into the

heavenly sanctuary through the church; the church is not the means

of his entry into the heavenly sanctuary, but, to the contrary, He

is the means of the church's entry, and it is precisely on the ground

that we have a great High Priest in the sanctuary above that those

who constitute the church are invited confidently to draw near to

the throne of grace through the new and living way which He has

opened for us (4:14-16; 10:19-22).

            The comparable opinion that the sanctuary into which Christ

enters is the souls or hearts of God's people is open to criticism

of the same order. This explanation is found as early as the fourth

century in Ambrose (in his comments on 8:2) and in Gregory of

Nazianzus (Ad Julianum, alluding to 8:2). In our own day it has

received the approval of F. F. Bruce, who writes as follows (on 9:11):

            What then is the nature of the spiritual temple in which God dwells?

            When Stephen maintained that "the Most High dwelleth not in

            houses made with hands," he confirmed his statement by quoting

            Isa. 66:1 f. But in that same prophetic context God declares that

            in preference to any material temple He chooses "him that is poor

            and of a contrite spirit, and that trembleth at my word." And this

            means that He prefers to make His dwelling with people of that

            character, as is shown by the similar words of Isa. 57:15: "For thus

            saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name

            is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that

            is of a contrite and humble spirit." Our author stands right in this

 

            14 Ibid., p. 260.



                                     The "Tents" in Hebrews   /   311

 

            prophetic tradition when he affirms that the people of God are

            the house of God: "whose house are we, if we hold fast our boldness

            and the glorying of our hope" (3:6).15

 

This, however, unexceptionable though it may otherwise be theo-

logically, is still a questionable exegesis of the passage in question.

The affirmation of Hebrews 3:6 is not the same as the affirmation of

Hebrews 9:11; and, though the people of God are described as a

"house" (or "household"), they are not anywhere called a "tent."

"The thought of our author must be distinguished here from that of

the Fourth Evangelist and from that of Paul," writes Montefiore (on

8:5). "For Paul the congregation of Christians formed the Temple

of God (1 Cor. iii.16; 2 Cor. vi.16; Eph. ii.21). According to the

Fourth Evangelist, Jesus when he prophesied that in three days he

would raise up the temple, was speaking ‘of the temple of his body’

(John ii.21). But for our author, heaven is to be identified with the

heavenly sanctuary, and Jesus entered it at his ascension."16

            As a matter of curiosity, it may be mentioned that the sixteenth

century Roman Catholic scholar Catharinus attempted to explain

"the greater and more perfect tent" as a reference to the Virgin

Mary, through whom Christ appeared as our high priest in this

would. If this raises even more acutely the question of the under-

standing of the definition "not of this creation," no doubt the Roman

Catholic apologist would propose that the answer is to be found in

the dogmas of the immaculate conception and the assumption into

heaven of the Virgin Mary — but this in turn would raise other

and more serious questions.

 

            THE TENT AS A HEAVENLY TABERNACLE

            Another view, which maintains a close analogy between what

is said here about Christ and the action of the high priest in the

wilderness tabernacle, supposes that as the high priest of old passed

through the holy place into the holy of holies so our High Priest is

envisaged as passing "through the greater and more perfect tent"

(corresponding to the holy place) before "he entered once for all

into the sanctuary" (corresponding to the holy of holies). On this

interpretation, Christ at His ascension passed through the outer

chamber of the heavens, that is, beyond this earth where the altar

of the cross was situated, and entered into the inner chamber of

 

15 F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids, 1964), pp.

199-200.

16 Hugh Montefoire, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Lon-

don, 1964), p. 137.



312   /   Bibliotheca Sacra — October1973

 

God's own presence. Thus over a century ago John Brown ex-

pounded Hebrews 9:1 l as follows:

            Our Lord offered His sacrifice on the earth, as the Jewish high

            priests did without the tabernacle; and having offered His sacrifice

            on the earth, He passed through the visible heavens, as they passed

            through the outer tabernacle, into the heaven of heavens, of which

            the most holy place was an emblem. He entered into the holy place

            [by which the writer evidently means the holy of holies] through

            the visible heavens, which are represented in the Old Testament

            Scriptures as the tabernacle of Jehovah His outer court, through-

            out which are scattered displays of grandeur and beauty worthy

            of the antechamber of the great King, the Lord of hosts, a taber-

            nacle certainly greater, more magnificent, more perfect, more highly

            finished, than the Mosaic tabernacle, with all its curious embroidery

            and costly ornaments, — a tabernacle formed immediately by the

            hand of God, who "in the beginning stretched out the heavens as

            a curtain."17

 

            Among our contemporaries both Hering and Spicy propound a

similar interpretation. According to the former: "The tabernacle is

presented here as the way, the sanctuary as the destination. . . . He

passes through the holy place, identified as heaven, in order to enter

into the holy of holies."18 And according to the latter: "Jesus, after

his resurrection and by means of his ascension, passed through the

heavens to arrive at the presence of God."19 Spicq refers to Hebrews

4:14, "we have a great high priest who has passed through the

heavens," and to Hebrews 7:26, where it is asserted that he is

"exalted above the heavens" (cf. Eph. 4:10). Another advocate of

this interpretation is Helmut Koester, who offers the following ex-

planation of the expression "the sanctuary and the true tent" (8:2):

            This is not a hendiadys, but expresses that Christ's office includes

            both the service in the sanctuary of heaven itself (ta< a!gia) and

            the entering by passing through the heavenly regions (h[ skhnh<)

            the ascension! It also becomes clear here that the author of Hebrews

            is more interested in the opening of the way into the heavenly

            sanctuary than in the performance of a service within the sanctuary

            of heaven."20

The judgment of the last sentence is surprising; leaving that aside,

however, it is true that the term ox vrj is used in our epistle of the

holy place through which the levitical high priest passed to enter

 

17 John Brown, An Exposition of the Epistle of the Apostle Paul to the

Hebrews, ed. by David Smith (New York, 1862), I, 394-95.

18 Jean Hering, L'epitre aux Hebreux (Neuchatel and Paris, 1954), p. 84.

19 C. Spicq, L'epitre aux Hebreux (3rd ed.; Paris, 1952-53), II, 256.

20 Hemut Koester, " ‘Outside the Camp’: Hebrews 13:9-14," Harvard Theo-

logical Review, LV (October, 1962), 309-10.



                                The "Tents" in Hebrews   /   313

 

the holy of holies (h[ prw<th skhnh<), 9:2,6,8, and perhaps 21), yet it is

also used of the holy of holies (9:3) and of the tabernacle in toto

(8:5; 13:10). The description of h[ skhnh< in 8:2 as a]lhqinh<, "the

true tent," well defines the sanctuary of which Christ is now the

minister, but is scarcely appropriate as a description of the heavenly

regions through which the ascending Lord passed. Besides, if the

latter interpretation were correct, one would have expected the way

to be mentioned before the destination. And, further, that a hen-

diadys is indeed intended by "the sanctuary and the true tent" is

confirmed by the singular number of the pronoun h!n in the relative

clause which follows—h{n e@phcen o[ ku<rioj: our author could hardly

have meant that the Lord set up only a heavenly holy place, espe-

cially as the focus of his attention is on the high priestly entry of

Jesus into the heavenly holy of holies. In fact, throughout these

chapters our author's perspective does not include the concept of

a holy place above, as distinct from the holy of holies, precisely

because, now that the curtain between the two has been abolished

and the way opened up by him for all into the heavenly holy of

holies which is the sanctuary of God's presence, the distinction no

longer exists.

            The ineptitude of this interpretation appears, too, from the

fact that the qualification of Hebrews 9:11, "not made with hands,

that is, not of this creation," applies just as little to the visible

heavens as it does to our earth, since both belong equally to "this

creation" and both are praised throughout Scripture as the works

of the divine Creator (Gen. 1:1; Ps. 19:1, etc.). This consideration

alone is enough to disqualify the distinction made by those who

propose this type of interpretation. The analogy between the old

and the new must not be pressed too far, for there is a radical

change in the situation as the result of the sacrifice which the

incarnate Son offered on the cross. The rending of His flesh at Cal-

vary was accompanied by the rending of the curtain which separated

the holy place from the holy of holies (Heb. 10:20; Mt. 27:51).

This symbolized, as we have already observed and as Hebrew 9:8

plainly indicates, the abolition of the outer chamber and the removal

of the barrier which hitherto had excluded the people from entry

into the chamber of God's presence. Now the way is clear for all

God's people, who together in Christ constitute a holy priesthood

(l. Pet. 2:5), to approach with boldness the throne of divine grace.

This is the new and living way of which our author speaks in

Hebrews 10:19 f.



314   /   Bibliotheca Sacra — October 1973

 

            CONCLUSION

 

            It is our understanding, then, that the author of the Epistle to

the Hebrews means here not two things but one; that is to say, that

the sanctuary into which Christ has entered is the same as that tent

which is described as "true" and "greater and more perfect." The

correctness of this judgment is confirmed by the assertion of

Hebrews 9:24 that "Christ has entered, not into a sanctuary made

with hands, a copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now

to appear in the presence of God on our behalf," in which we find

the sanctuary into which Christ has entered defined by precisely

the same terms that are used to define the tent in Hebrews 8:2 and

Hebrews 9:11, namely, true and not made with hands. This linguistic

correspondence shows in a striking manner that the "sanctuary" and

the "tent" are one and the same thing. In Hebrews 8:2 our author

declares that Christ our High Priest is now "in heaven," where

He ministers "in the sanctuary which is the true tent," and in He-

brews 9:11-12 that He entered into the heavenly holy of holies

through His entry into "the greater and more perfect tent." If there is

a suggestion of a distinction in the latter passage, it is no more than

this, that, in conformity with the imagery of the wilderness taber-

nacle, Christ is envisaged as entering the true tent (of heaven) which

contains the true sanctuary (of God's presence). But as the curtain

which divided the tent into two chambers has now been abolished,

it is easy to see how in the true order of things tent and sanctuary

can be treated as synonymous terms.

            The contrasts and correspondences to which we have drawn

attention may be presented schematically as follows:

           

The Mosaic tabernacle

            "on earth" (8:4 f.)

            "an earthly sanctuary" (9:1)

            "set up by man" (8:2)

            "made with hands"

            "of this creation" (9:11)

            "a sanctuary made with

            hands" (9:24)

            "a copy and shadow" (8:5)

            "a copy" (9:24)

The heavenly reality

            "in heaven" (8:1)

            "set up by the Lord" (8:2)

            "not made with hands"

            "that is, not of this creation" (9:11)

            "not a sanctuary made with hands"

            (9:24)

            "the true tent" (8:2)

            "the true sanctuary" (9:24)

            "the greater and more perfect tent"

            (9:11)

            "heaven itself" (9:24

 

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