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

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

Priests and Kings — Attached to Praise

In Genesis 29, we’re briefly introduced to a woman who plays a key role in Biblical history. Though she is largely overlooked, her legacy shaped the religion we now call Christianity in fascinating ways.

Now Laban had two daughters: the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah’s eyes were delicate, but Rachel was beautiful of form and appearance. (Gen 29:16-17)

The matriarchs of Genesis see themselves as filling their godly role when they have children who grow up to play key roles in Biblical history. These women are heroes of motherhood as well as of faith. They have their own speaking lines, personalities, and relationships with God, but they’re typically remembered in terms of the children they raised.

Priests and Kings -- Attached to Praise | marissabaker.wordpress.com
photo credits: “Tallitot” by Robert Couse-Baker (CC BY); “Danish royal crown” by Dion Hinchcliffe (CC BY-SA); “Shofar and Candlesticks” by slgckgc (CC BY)

Leah mothered 6 of Jacob’s 12 sons, as well as the only daughter recorded for any patriarch. Her sons Levi and Judah were the ones God used to found lines of priests and kings. Though the story of Rachel and her son Joseph overshadow the other sons in Genesis, kingship and priesthood play a huge role in God’s plan and there’s much we can learn from Leah’s take on the birth of her sons. Read more

Clothed in Holiness

“What do you think dignity’s all about?”

The directness of the inquiry did, I admit, take me rather by surprise. “It’s rather a hard thing to explain in a few words, sir,” I said. “But I suspect it comes down to not removing one’s clothing in public.” (Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day)

This quote comes from a delightful little book about a British butler looking back on his life. Much of his reminisces center around this idea of dignity. He connects dignity with “a butler’s ability not to abandon the professional being he inhabits.” A butler who cannot do this is “like a man who will, at the slightest provocation, tear off his suit and shirt and run around screaming.” In short, a good butler keeps himself covered in the role he is committed to no matter how trying the circumstances.

Clothed in Holiness | marissabaker.wordpress.com
Photo: Messianic Dance Troupe by Larry Jacobsen

I would probably not have connected this with the Bible if not for a message I heard on the same day I was taking The Remains of the Day back to the library. The Rabbi at my local Messianic congregation taught on the priestly garments and how we choose to “cover” ourselves with either good or bad actions, words, and character traits. Read more

Consider the High Priest

In Hebrews 3:1, the writer tells his “holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling” to “consider the Apostle and High Priest of our confession, Christ Jesus.” The word “consider” invites us to “observe fully” (Strong’s G2657) and “fix one’s eyes or mind upon” Jesus (Thayers). That’s what we did in last week’s post for His role as Apostle, and what I hope to do this week for His role as High Priest.

Consider the High Priest | marissabaker.wordpress.com

Changed Priesthood

Christ’s priesthood is “after the order of Melchizedek.” It’s a key point in Hebrews’ discussion of Christ as our High Priest, even though we know very little about Melchizedek from his 3-verse appearance in the Torah. Read more