Jesus: The Mercy Seat and Atonement Sacrifice

I love how dynamic the Bible is. Read a verse you’ve studied dozens of times, and suddenly a slightly different translation or an idea you had last month snaps into clarity and you see a deeper, fuller layer of God’s truth. I like to think that’s the holy spirit working, aligning our thoughts and ideas more closely with God so we can understand the things given to us by God.

The verse to most recently strike me in this way was the NET translation of Romans 3:25. I quoted it in last week’s post. Here, Paul says of Jesus that “God publicly displayed him at his death as the mercy seat accessible through faith.” In the KJV, this was translated as “whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood.” Both translations are profound, but seeing that connection to the mercy seat (which is an accurate translation of G2435, hilasterion, and is also used in Heb. 9:5) made me think about the idea in this verse more deeply.

“Mercy seat” is one of those things in the New Testament that wouldn’t make any sense at all without context from the Old Testament. Reading either testament in isolation would mean you only get a partial picture of God’s story and plan. It’s all one book, and nowhere is that more visible than when looking at how key aspects of the Old Testament law and worship point straight to Jesus Christ.

Context for the Mercy Seat

The mercy seat was the top part of the ark of the covenant. It is the location where the incense and the blood of the yearly Yom Kippor (Day of Atonement) sacrifice were placed (Lev. 16:11-17) and the place that God’s presence appeared when He met with His people (Ex. 30:6; Num. 7:89). In the Old Testament, the NET uses the translation “atonement lid” for the Hebrew word kapporet to represent that this ornate “lid” for the ark of the covenant (Ex. 25:10-22) is the location where atonement is made and accepted (NET footnote). When there was a tabernacle or temple, the atonement lid/mercy seat was located inside the most holy place (also called the inner sanctuary or holy of holies). A heavy curtain or veil separated this inner sanctuary from view; only the high priest could enter and only once a year.

That background helps us understand what the New Testament writers tell us about Jesus’s death. When Matthew 27:51, Mark 15:38, and Luke 23:45 say “the temple curtain was torn in two” when Jesus died, they most likely mean the curtain that separated the holy of holies from the rest of the temple. Jesus’s death ripped open the separation between God and man. We’re not removed from the place where God appears or the location where atonement is made anymore. On their own, human beings had never been holy or pure enough to be in God’s presence, but now through the blood of Jesus which washes our sins away we can access the holiest places in the heavens.

One Sacrifice in the Heavenly Sanctuary

As we’ve seen, even though the Greek word translated “mercy seat” only shows up twice in the New Testament, the concept plays a much bigger role than it might seem at first. When Paul calls Jesus “the mercy seat accessible through faith,” it’s in the context of God’s righteousness (which “is attested by the law and the prophets”) being even more fully demonstrated in Jesus and the New Covenant than it was in the Old Covenant law (Rom. 3:19-26). There’s a “passing over” of sins that is connected with sacrifice, and the “mercy seat” is the “place or object” where that propitiation/atonement happens (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, entry 1023, kapportet).

The author of Hebrews expands on this sacrifice even more. As part of a lengthy discussion of Jesus’s priesthood (which takes up most of the book), this writer says one of the reasons that Jesus “shared in” our “humanity” was “so that he could become a merciful and faithful high priest in things relating to God, to make atonement for the sins of the people” (Heb. 2:14-17, NET). Remember, for Jewish readers (and probably non-Jewish converts in that society as well) the idea of atonement was linked to Yom Kippur and the sacrifice for that day where the high priest offered blood and incense at the mercy seat. Unlike the Old Covenant Levitical priests, Jesus “has no need” to offer daily or even yearly sacrifices (Heb. 7:23-28; 10:10-14). His New Covenant priesthood operates on a heavenly level.

For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with hands—the representation of the true sanctuary—but into heaven itself, and he appears now in God’s presence for us. And he did not enter to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the sanctuary year after year with blood that is not his own, for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But now he has appeared once for all at the consummation of the ages to put away sin by his sacrifice.

Hebrews 9:24-26, NET

The holy places, priesthood, worship, and sacrifices of the Old Covenant all pointed to this: Jesus the High Priest entering the heavenly sanctuary with His own blood to put away sin from all who will accept what He does on their behalf. The importance of Jesus’s sacrifice is something that all Christians, whatever their background or denomination, are intimately familiar with. The more we learn about the rich history of worship and covenants that frame His sacrifice, though, the more fully we can understand and appreciate what Jesus did. And it also deepens our understanding of what He is currently doing–His priesthood has no expiration date. He is still, right this very moment, acting as the “mercy seat” and High Priest in the heavenly temple whose atonement sacrifice removes all our sins by substituting Himself in our place.

Featured image by Pearl via Lightstock

Clean Temples For Yom Kippur

Back in the Old Testament when there was a tabernacle or temple standing, it included a room called “the most holy place” or “the holy of holies.” This was where the ark of the covenant was and a heavy veil separated it from the rest of the inner temple. It wasn’t a place that people, even the priests, could just walk into.

and Yahweh said to Moses, “Tell Aaron your brother, not to come at all times into the Most Holy Place within the veil, before the mercy seat which is on the ark; lest he die: for I will appear in the cloud on the mercy seat. (Lev. 16:2, WEB)

The only time someone could enter this most holy place was on the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur. Even then only the high priest could go in and only if he followed the proper rules for entering a place God had sanctified.

Clean Temples For Yom Kippur | marissabaker.wordpress.com
Photo credit: “Clean” by Sara Laval, CC BY via Flickr

But why bring this up now? We don’t have a temple or a priesthood or sacrifices anymore. And many Christians will say all that Old Testament stuff belong in the past. Or does it? There actually is a temple today, for “you are a temple of God” (1 Cor. 3:16, WEB). There’s a priesthood, too, because Jesus Christ is the High Priest and He has “an unchangeable priesthood” (Heb. 7:24, KJV). We’re even included in that because we’re meant “to be a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices” (1 Pet. 2:5, WEB). So given these facts, what can we learn from Yom Kippur today?

Temples Defiled By Association

When I was re-reading Leviticus 16, I was surprised to notice that the high priest was told to “make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleanness of the children of Israel, and because of their transgressions, even all their sins” (Lev. 16:16, 33 WEB). I knew he was to make atonement for himself and “all the assembly of Israel,” but hadn’t noticed the holy place needed atoned for as well (Lev. 16:17, 30). There was something about being in the midst of an unclean, sinful people that defiled even the part of the temple where God’s presence appeared.

Today, the church body is described as a temple of God (there’s also a temple talked about in heaven, which we’ll get to later). The Greek word used in those passages is always naos (G3485), which refers to the inner sanctuary rather than the entire temple complex (which would be hieron, G2411). We are now God’s most holy place. And like the other holy of holies, we can become defiled by choice (see 1 Cor. 3:16-17) or by the sinful world around us. Read more

Fasting

Fasting is one of the things Christians are supposed to do. And it’s something I’ve never done except on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) when it’s strictly commanded. I’ve never even studied it because I didn’t want to be convicted on the subject (a rather embarrassing admission, but an honest one). But faithful followers of God fasted in the past, it’s counted right alongside prayer as a way of drawing nearer to God, and I suspect I should take it more seriously.

One of the churches I attend with recently called a church-wide fast, which had me thinking on the subject again. In this church, it’s generally accepted that “fast” means abstaining from food and drink for 24 hours (unless you have a medical reason you can’t do a full fast). In my Messianic group, though, I’ve heard people talking about different kinds of fasts using phrases like “full fast” and “Daniel fasts.” Having avoided studying the subject in the past, I had no ready answers for the questions this brought to mind about whether or not there really are different types of fasts and what sort of fasting God expects. Hence, this Bible study.Fasting: exploring the what, why, and how of the Christian fast | marissabaker.wordpress.com

Types of Fasting

The Hebrew words for “fast” are tsum (H6684) and its derivative tsome (H6655). The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament defines it as “depriving the body of nourishment.” In Greek, the basic word for “fast” comes from a compound of ne (not) and estho (to eat). Spiros Zodhiates says nestis (G3523) means “not having eaten” and its derivatives nesteuo (G3522) and nesteia (G3521) mean “to fast or abstain from eating.”

There are three main types of fasting that Christian groups as a whole typically recognize. They all involve not eating food for a set period of time. Some churches/writers also add a fourth kind of fast for abstaining from certain activities (such as watching TV or having sex, which they get from 1 Cor. 7:3-5).

  • A “full,” “absolute,” or “dry” fast means no food or drink.
  • A “normal,” “regular,”  or “liquid” fast means no food, but you can drink water or sometimes juice (some incorrectly refer to this as a “full fast”).
  • A “partial” or “Daniel” fast involves abstaining from a specific meal or certain types of food.

These are also the types of fasts that secular resources discuss when they talk about fasting for health reasons. But does the Bible support these distinctions in fast types? Read more

Our Atonement Today

A blessed Yom Kippur/Day of Atonement to you all. Earlier this month, I subscribed to Bible Gateway’s newsletter Holy Land Moments with Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein. It’s described as a way to learn about the Jewish background of Scripture by exploring the High Holy Days.

I’m finding it fascinating. I grew up keeping these Holy Days, but not always with much understanding of the Jewish perspective on them. While some of the Jewish tradition doesn’t relate to Christian observance of these days, they often teach a perspective that deepens my understanding. Take the Days of Awe for example. Using the 10 days between Trumpets and Atonement for self-reflection and repentance deepens the meaning of and my engagement with this holy time. And sometimes, the Jewish perspective sparks a thought about how my Christian perspective differs, such as today’s comment in the Holy Land Moments newsletter:

The central part of the Yom Kippur service is missing today. Chapter 16 of Leviticus is dedicated to the description and instructions for the Yom Kippur service that was performed when the Tabernacle and later the Temples stood. Today, we no longer have a high priest, nor do we participate in ritual sacrifices. So how do we achieve atonement?

Those who believe Messiah has come have a different answer to this question than those who don’t. Rabbi Eckstein writes,”There are three keys that take the place of the service performed in biblical times” and they “can undo our wrongdoings and change things for the better.” These things are “repentance, prayer, and charity.”

Our Atonement Today | marissabaker.wordpress.com
original photo credit: Nick Fullerton, CC BY via Flickr

While those things are important, I thank God through Jesus Christ my Lord that I’m not trying to atone for myself. There’s no way I could ever do enough or be good enough to undo my own sins. Today, we do have a High Priest and He has filled the ritual sacrifices with His perfect sacrifice (Heb. 7:23-28). The “central part” of Yom Kippur isn’t missing for Christians who keep this Holy Day — it’s more real than ever. Read more

Top 5 Reasons for Christians to Keep God’s Holy Days

Today we celebrate Yom Teruah, also called Feast of Trumpets and Rosh Hashanah. But why? After all, I’m Christian and most people think of this as a Jewish holiday. Same goes for Yom Kippur/Day of Atonement, which we’ll observe 10 days from now, and Sukkot/Feast of Tabernacles that starts in two weeks.

I believe these festival observances, along with others already completed this year, are for Christians today. When Jesus came to this world, it wasn’t to set up a new religion. He was the next step in God’s plan for the world and these days are part of the covenant He makes with His family. He’s still inviting us to gather for “reunions” at certain times of the year.Top 5 Reasons for Christians to Keep God's Holy Days | marissabaker.wordpress.com

1. They Belong To God

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘The feasts of the Lord, which you shall proclaim to be holy convocations, these are My feasts.” (Lev. 23:1-2)

The holy days aren’t Jewish or exclusively Old Testament. They belong to God Himself. We talk about Leviticus 23 as the chapter where God gives Israel the Feasts, but that’s not quite accurate. God doesn’t say, “Here are your holy days, Israel.” He says, “These are the feasts of the Lord, holy convocations which you shall proclaim at their appointed times” (Lev. 23:4). Read more

Rhythms of Worship

The people of God are set apart, with different priorities, habits, and festivals than the rest of the world. We may celebrate national holidays of our homelands, such as July 4th for Americans, but those are not the observances that shape our identities as God’s people. The kingdom we belong to under Christ’s authority has a different calendar.

A couple months ago, I read Desiring the Kingdom by James K.A. Smith. In Chapter 5: Practicing (for) the Kingdom, he discusses “rhythms and cadences of hope” that Christians observe in weekly and annual practices. For him, this means Sunday, Easter, Lent, Advent, Christmas and others. He connects the observances to a rich history of “a people gathered to worship the Messiah, who does not float in some esoteric, ahistorical heaven, but who made a dent in the calendar — and will again” (p. 157). Rhythms of Worship | marissabaker.wordpress.com

But when you read the Bible, you won’t find those days he talks about on God’s calendar. Even the one mention of Easter in the KJV is a mistransltion of pascha, or Passover (Acts 12:4, Strong’s G3957). Rather, we find the church from the Torah to Revelation on a calendar even more unique than the one Smith claims for Christians. I know it puzzles many Christians that I would keep the “Jewish holidays,” but I find it equally puzzling that they would continue a tradition of co-opting pagan holidays and attaching them to Biblical events God gave no instructions to observe. When we search the scriptures looking for God’s version of liturgical rhythms, we find a worship pattern far more richly layered and deeply rooted in God’s plan than what man has invented. Read more