Leading up to this point the author of Hebrews has been making a case for the superiority of Jesus as our priest when compared to earthly priests. As he moves forward, he also explains that the method by which Jesus connects us with God is far superior to the old Levitical system.
Jesus is located at the right hand of "the Majesty in heaven", which refers to God. Being "at the right hand" of royalty was the highest honor possible. It's also worth noticing that Jesus is "seated" at God's right hand in his role as our high priest. He is not bustling about cleaning up our mess in the presence of God. That work was finished on the cross.
Jesus is ministering (a "churchy" word that basically just means "serving") in "the holy places". The word "holy" means "set apart for the purposes of God". So Jesus is serving us as a priest(a mediator and go-between for us and God), and doing so in places set apart for God's purposes in a special way.
At this point, the original Hebrew readers might have thought, "If that's true, why is Jesus not serving in the temple?" After all, the temple was the ultimate holy place on earth, designated by God to be the place where he would interact with humanity in an exclusively unique way.
One reason Jesus does not serve in an earthly temple is because it's inferior to the "true tent" that he serves us in now. The Hebrew word for "tent" is what was used in the Tanakh (Old Testament) to refer to the Tabernacle, the mobile building that eventually became the immobile Temple for Israel's worship. So the author is saying here that Jesus serves as a priest in the true tabernacle.
The Greek word used for "true" here indicates that this tabernacle is the real thing in every sense intended by the word, the implication being that the earthbound tabernacle is in some way not authentic. He goes on to say that this "true tabernacle" was set up by God, whereas the earthly temple and tabernacle were built by humans.
This "true tabernacle" is needed because it is the role of a priest to offer gifts and sacrifices to God on behalf of humanity. This amazing interaction between laughably finite beings and a super-dimensional, infinite being has its uniqueness highlighted by limiting this connective, relational interaction to a special place. A "holy"(set apart) place.
The temple wasn't some unnecessarily formal building. Its use was meant to be a massive blinking neon sign saying, "Wow! Do all of you realize what an amazing thing is happening here??" The use of a tabernacle and temple drew attention to the fact that this interaction with God was immensely significant.
Christ's work does not negate the need for a temple. If anything, his mind-blowingly unprecedented acts of love on our behalf call for an even better "holy place" to draw attention to the significance of our interaction with God through Christ. So appropriately, there IS a better place for this, which more truly reflects God's connection to us through Christ. And Christ is serving us in this better temple right now. And we don't even have to go there. While Jesus operates in this true temple remotely, we experience the benefits of connection with God wherever we might be. The author will go into this idea of the "true tent" in more detail beginning in verse 5.
I'm a huge believer in the potential that God has specifically given geeks to serve him effectively and be a part of what he is doing in the world. One reason I believe in that potential is because of a geek's love for wondrous ideas that require expansive and imaginative thinking to grasp. Because God is so different, so "other" from most everything we know, understanding more deeply who he is and how he works in the world requires some extensive imagination, second only in strength to an uncompromising pursuit of truth.
Many geeks are both skilled in using imagination and gifted with solid, logical minds. We put these traits to work when we dive deeper into the fictional worlds we love so much and contemplate the incredibly intricate "what ifs" of science fiction and fantasy. But at the end of the day, we recognize our musings as a fun intellectual exercise and not much more.
A natural danger to my study of scripture is to approach it with the same investment and response I bring to my examination of fictional settings and stories. It's so easy to learn something about who God is and how he works in my life, and then leave that information behind, compartmentalizing it to my "study time" without allowing it to effect my moment-by-moment walk through the day.
But who God is, and the fact that he wants to have a moment-by-moment relationship with us, is insanely significant! So significant that, as we see in Hebrews, the biggest, most beautiful building in the world wouldn't be extravagant enough to represent what a big deal that is.
God wants to connect with us. He wants us to not only know him with our minds, but know him through experience. Through time spent with him.
If you find that your natural tendency is to exercise your faith mainly in the realm of study or contemplation, I wan't to encourage you, while also challenging myself, to spend an increased amount of time speaking to God. Get alone somewhere, and pray in silence or maybe even out loud, as I find helpful. Or start writing letters to God (and if that feels too much like journaling, destroy your letters after writing them). Share your heart with him. Even if the only thing on your heart is "Crap, I don't want to do this. When can I be done and go play some more World Of Warcraft?" In fact, that kind of transparency will likely lead to some realizations about yourself and your great need and thankfulness for Jesus! That's certainly been the case for me!
God is the only person in existence who won't potentially change how he views us as we become more open and honest with him. We can yell at him, cry with him, be bored and frustrated with him, and all the other things that we can't be with other people. We can express everything to him.
Over the last 6 months or so I've found that pairing this kind of verbalizing to God with regular reading of the Psalms (and sometime other parts of scripture) creates a literal, actual dialogue with God. It's a bit delayed, like sending e-mails or texts back and forth with someone. But I see a pattern of me verbalizing and him responding by drawing my attention to scripture that is amazingly orchestrated to fall in front of me with perfect timing.
It's not always that way. It's not even MOSTLY that way. There are plenty of times when God seems to want to talk to me about something other than what's on my mind. But the dialogue becomes more obvious as I am more consistent in devoting myself to it.
The process comes with some difficulty and frustration at times. But that's the nature of growing in spiritual discipline. And the reward is God's peace in our day to day lives.
(Philippians 4:9, ESV) What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.
When we realize the monumental gift being offered in a relationship with God, when we bring our faith out of fascinating intellectual theory and recognize and apply it as reality, we gain a perfect friend and counselor to take us through every situation we encounter in life.
Who wouldn't want that?