What does Hebrews 9:3 mean?
ESV: Behind the second curtain was a second section called the Most Holy Place,
NIV: Behind the second curtain was a room called the Most Holy Place,
NASB: Behind the second veil there was a tabernacle which is called the Most Holy Place,
CSB: Behind the second curtain was a tent called the most holy place.
NLT: Then there was a curtain, and behind the curtain was the second room called the Most Holy Place.
KJV: And after the second veil, the tabernacle which is called the Holiest of all;
Verse Commentary:
The writer of Hebrews is giving a brief description of the old covenant's system of sacrifices and worship. The purpose is not only to show that the prior system was limited and flawed, but that its elements were meant to be symbols of God's eternal plan: the ministry of Jesus Christ. That symbolism is the key point of this passage, rather than the minute details of the temple's arrangement (Hebrews 9:5).

As described in the book of Exodus, the tabernacle—the tent—where God commanded Israel to perform their ritual sacrifices included a particular area separated from the rest of the structure. This "Holy Place" contained a seven-flamed oil lamp (Exodus 25:31–40) and a table which always featured twelve loaves of bread (Exodus 25:23–30; Leviticus 24:5–9).

Also within this section was another, curtained-off room called the "Most Holy Place." The difficulty of translating from one language to another can make this reference confusing, especially when reading straight through from verse 2 to verse 4. According to the pattern given in the Old Testament, the altar of incense is in the Holy Place. Read as typically translated, in English, this phrasing seems to suggest the altar of incense is in the Most Holy Place. However, the structure of the Greek here suggests a parenthetical statement. It's entirely possible that verse 3 is meant as an aside, or a footnote, by the writer of Hebrews. This would connect the reference to the "Holy Place" with the golden altar of incense, with the comment made in verse 3 intended as a separate, parallel reference. Alternatively, the Greek term used in verse 4, echousa, is typically a reference to possession, not position. In other words, the writer might have been saying that the altar "belonged" to the Most Holy Place, in the sense that their purposes were connected, not necessarily that one was inside the other. It's also possible, if not likely, that the priests used more than one altar for various purposes in their daily duties.

Regardless which is the case, the writer of Hebrews makes it clear that his description is very brief (Hebrews 9:5), so any confusion over what is meant should be viewed with that approach in mind. The point of this passage is to show the symbolic meaning of these items, not to give their exact placement or position.
Verse Context:
Hebrews 9:1–10 explains how the rooms and artifacts of the temple were only meant as symbols. In fact, those items were specifically intended to show how the old covenant could not remove the barrier between God and man. The use of external rituals can only assuage feelings of guilt, it cannot actually remove sin or change a person's nature. The existence of the curtains, separating men from the holy places, is also symbolic of how the old covenant leaves us apart from God. This sets up a comparison, in the following passage, showing how Christ's sacrifice fulfills those symbols and achieves a perfection of our relationship with God.
Chapter Summary:
Hebrews chapter 9 explains how the old covenant included various physical locations and physical rituals. These, according to the writer of Hebrews, were always intended as symbols. Their details, and the drawbacks which they suffered from, were meant to point towards the ''true'' means of our redemption, which is Christ. Unlike animal sacrifices, which must be repeated, and which cannot change man on the inside, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is a once for all, permanent, and completely effective solution to sin. The fact that Christ died for sin only once also means that His next arrival, in the future, will not be as a sacrifice, but as the final fulfillment of God's plan.
Chapter Context:
Chapter 9 continues the writer's explanation of the superiority of Christ. In chapter 8, this focused on the idea that God had promised a new covenant, even as the old covenant was still in effect. This not only means that the new covenant must be different, but that the old covenant must be flawed. Here in chapter 9, the writer focuses on the fact that the old covenant featured aspects which were meant only as symbols of the ''true'' high priesthood of Christ. Since Christ's sacrifice is more powerful, and performed in a better place, it is more effective in securing our salvation than the sacrifices of animals. Chapter 10 will continue this discussion by wrapping up these various ideas about the superiority of the new covenant.
Book Summary:
The book of Hebrews is meant to challenge, encourage, and empower Christian believers. According to this letter, Jesus Christ is superior to all other prophets and all other claims to truth. Since God has given us Christ, we ought to listen to what He says and not move backwards. The consequences of ignoring God are dire. Hebrews is important for drawing on many portions of the Old Testament in making a case that Christ is the ultimate and perfect expression of God's plan for mankind. This book presents some tough ideas about the Christian faith, a fact the author makes specific note of.
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