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.
I recently read Just Mercy by Brian Stevenson, shortly after watching the film adaptation (both are excellent, by the way; I highly recommend reading and watching). Mercy and justice are tricky things for us humans to balance. We don’t have perfect perspective on every situation. We don’t know all the relevant facts. We want justice but we often mishandle it badly. And for some reason, it’s often hard to show mercy or to convince others it’s a good idea.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” (Matt. 5:7, all quotes from WEB translation)
We all need mercy, particularly from God. We also all need to give mercy, otherwise we won’t receive any. It’s the same principle as forgiveness. As Jesus says just a little later in the same sermon where He gives us the Beatitudes,
“For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you don’t forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matt. 6:14-15)
The relation between the character trait and how God rewards it is very direct in this particular Beatitude. You give mercy, you get mercy. And it’s not just about passively letting mercy happen or giving it only when absolutely necessary. The Greek word eleemon (G1655) is “active compassion and benevolence involving thought and action.” It is an expression of the love inside you, and it’s closely related to other words like elos (G1656, applied grace, pity, compassion) and eleemosune (G1654, actions of mercy) (Zodhiates’ dictionary). Here’s the only other place this specific form of the word for “mercy” is used in scripture:
Therefore he was obligated in all things to be made like his brothers, that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make atonement for the sins of the people. (Heb. 2:17)
We’re to have the same kind of mercy that Jesus has as a result of His life here on earth as a human being. He learned what it’s like to be human and that gave Him an even deeper compassion for us than God had before (which was already bountiful).
Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement) — today — is considered the most holy day in the Jewish calender. After finishing such an exciting study of Yom Teruah (The Feast of Trumpets), I spent the ten “Days of Awe” in between these two holy days on a study of Yom Kippur, which I’d like to share with you today.
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: “Also the tenth day of this seventh month shall be the Day of Atonement. It shall be a holy convocation for you; you shall afflict your souls, and offer an offering made by fire to the Lord. And you shall do no work on that same day, for it is the Day of Atonement, to make atonement for you before the Lord your God. For any person who is not afflicted in soul on that same day shall be cut off from his people. And any person who does any work on that same day, that person I will destroy from among his people. You shall do no manner of work; it shall be a statute forever throughout your generations in all your dwellings. It shall be to you a sabbath of solemn rest, and you shall afflict your souls; on the ninth day of the month at evening, from evening to evening, you shall celebrate your sabbath.” (Lev. 23:26-32)
The other Sabbaths and Holy Days also include an instruction to cease from all customary work, but the admonition is much stronger here and includes any and every manner of work. This is obviously very important to God — He repeats the commands to “afflict your souls” and “do no work” three times each, and says that the person who does not fast and rest on Yom Kippur shall be cast off, or destroyed, “from among his people.” It is also described as “a statute forever,” so New Testament Christians aren’t getting “off the hook” (see Acts 27:9). The depth and meaning of this Holy Day teaches us so much about Jesus Christ, and we still need those reminders.
The Hebrew word kippur or kippurim (H3725) means atonement or reconciliation. Strong’s Dictionary notes, “atonement may be a figure of covering over and therefore forgetting (forgiving) sin.” Zodhiates says “atonement means the condition which results when one makes amends, a satisfactory reparation.” He also includes an interesting note about the history of the English word “atonement,” which “has its roots in Middle English and means ‘to be “at one”.'” You can see this by breaking the word into the phrase at-one-ment.
Kippur is used only 8 times in the Bible, and typically refers to the Day of Atonement. It is also used of the sacrifices that were offered when consecrating Aaron and his sons as priests and cleansing the altar of the tabernacle (Ex. 29:36), and in reference to a monetary sacrifice given by the children of Israel to be used in the tabernacle/temple (Ex. 30:15-16).
Other times the word “atonement” occurs in the Old Testament it’s translated from kaphar (H3722). It’s the root word of kippur, and is where we get the idea of “covering” in relation to atonement. It can mean to hide sin, to annul a contract (Is. 28:18), or to make waterproof by covering with pitch (Gen. 6:14). Baker and Carpenter’s WordStudy dictionary says, “the word conveys the notion of covering but not in the sense of merely concealing. Rather, it suggests the imposing of something to change its appearance or nature.” It’s used most often “with reference to ‘covering’ (hiding) sin with the blood of sacrifices.”
You’re probably way ahead of me in connecting this Yom Kippur observance to Jesus Christ’s atoning sacrifice. But before we move to the New Testament, let’s take a closer look at what happened on the Day of Atonement in the Old Testament.
and the Lord said to Moses: “Tell Aaron your brother not to come at just any time into the Holy Place inside the veil, before the mercy seat which is on the ark, lest he die; for I will appear in the cloud above the mercy seat.” (Lev. 16:2)
The Day of Atonement was the only time during the year that the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies, which was the inner sanctuary of the temple/tabernacle, and no one else was ever allowed inside. The rituals for Yom Kippur were quite involved, and you can read all about them in Leviticus 16. For now, I want to focus on what the high priest was doing inside the Holy of Holies on this day.
And Aaron shall bring the bull of the sin offering, which is for himself, and make atonement for himself and for his house, and shall kill the bull as the sin offering which is for himself. Then he shall take a censer full of burning coals of fire from the altar before the Lord, with his hands full of sweet incense beaten fine, and bring it inside the veil. And he shall put the incense on the fire before the Lord, that the cloud of incense may cover the mercy seat that is on the Testimony, lest he die. He shall take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger on the mercy seat on the east side; and before the mercy seat he shall sprinkle some of the blood with his finger seven times.
Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering, which is for the people, bring its blood inside the veil, do with that blood as he did with the blood of the bull, and sprinkle it on the mercy seat and before the mercy seat. So he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleanness of the children of Israel, and because of their transgressions, for all their sins; and so he shall do for the tabernacle of meeting which remains among them in the midst of their uncleanness. (Lev. 16:11-16)
Notice how much of this ceremony is centered around the mercy seat. This was the covering of the ark of the covenant, and we’ll get back to it in just a moment when we go to the book of Hebrews.
This shall be a statute forever for you: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict your souls, and do no work at all, whether a native of your own country or a stranger who dwells among you. For on that day the priest shall make atonement for you, to cleanse you, that you may be clean from all your sins before the Lord. It is a sabbath of solemn rest for you, and you shall afflict your souls. It is a statute forever. (Lev. 16:29-31)
Though we know Jesus Christ’s sacrifice did away with the need for animal sacrifices by fulfilling all that they pictured (Heb. 10:1-18), there is still meaning for us in the Day of Atonement. God said many times that observance of this day is something that would last “forever.” We are still to afflict our souls by fasting from food and water for 24 hours, we’re still to keep it as a sabbath of absolute rest, and we are still to be mindful of the sacrifice required to atone for our sins.
Christ, Our Atonement
In Hebrews 9, the writer speaks at length about the relationship between Christ’s sacrifice and the Day of Atonement. Following a description of the tabernacle, with particular attention paid to the sanctuary “called the Holiest of All” located “behind the second veil,” he talks about the priest’s daily ministrations and the high priest’s yearly role on Yom Kippur.
But into the second part the high priest went alone once a year, not without blood, which he offered for himself and for the people’s sins committed in ignorance; the Holy Spirit indicating this, that the way into the Holiest of All was not yet made manifest while the first tabernacle was still standing. (Heb. 9:7-8)
Up until the moment of Christ’s death, the average person had no right to enter the Holy of Holies or approach the mercy seat. But when Jesus died, “the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom” (Matt. 27:51). This didn’t mean the Jewish priests would let just anyone stroll into the physical Holy of Holies, but it did show that the way was open for us to approach the true Mercy Seat in heaven through the blood of Jesus Christ.
But Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. (Heb. 9:11-12)
Christ’ one sacrifice did what none of the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament could do. The animal sacrifices were figures of His sacrifice, used to sanctify the physical representations of a heavenly temple, cover sins until the true Sacrifice came, and bind God’s covenant with Israel. In fulfilling the terms of that covenant, He paid the ultimate price for all past and future sins.
And according to the law almost all things are purified with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no remission. Therefore it was necessary that the copies of the things in the heavens should be purified with these, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ has not entered the holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us; not that He should offer Himself often, as the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood of another — He then would have had to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now, once at the end of the ages, He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. (Heb. 9:22-26)
In the Old Testament, an animal sacrifice was required before someone could approach God. Those who are sinful are separated from God (Is. 59:2), and the repeated animal sacrifices taught that in order for us to be made right with God, someone has to die on our behalf. That Someone — whose sacrifice covers and puts away the sins of the whole world — is Jesus Christ.
The Mercy Seat
and behind the second veil, the part of the tabernacle which is called the Holiest of All, which had the golden censer and the ark of the covenant overlaid on all sides with gold, in which were the golden pot that had the manna, Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tablets of the covenant; and above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these things we cannot now speak in detail. (Heb. 9:3-5)
I personally think this last line is one of the most frustrating in the Bible. I’d love to know what would have been said if this writer could “speak in detail” about the mercy seat.
In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for “mercy seat” is kapporeth (H3727), and it is always used in reference “to the golden cover of the sacred chest deep inside the tabernacle or Solomon’s temple. This was the exact spot where God promised to meet with human beings (Num. 7:89)” (Zodhiates). The Greek word used in Heb. 9:5 is hilasterios (G2435). In the literal sense, it means the same thing as kapporeth — the lid of the ark of the covenant. This word is only used twice in the New Testament, and the other use adds another layer of meaning.
being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed (Rom. 3:24-25)
The word translated “propitiation” here is hilasterios. Zodhiates says, “Paul, by applying this name to Christ in Rom. 3:25, assured us that Christ was the true mercy seat, the reality typified by the cover of the ark of the covenant. … He is designated not only as the place where the sinner deposits his sin, but He Himself is the means of expiation.” In the Old Testament, the high spriest sprinkled a sin offering for the people on the mercy seat once a year. Now, we can bring our sins directly to the High Priest, who Himself paid the blood price to cleanse us. In reference to Jesus, Zodhiates thinks mercy seat “is an inadequate translation of the Gr. word which is rather equivalent to the Throne of Grace.”
Christ’s role as High Priest and ultimate sacrifice fulfill the role of the mercy seat in the Day of Atonement. It goes even deeper than that, through, since He also fulfills the role of the mercy seat as the place where God “will meet with” and “will speak with” His people (Ex. 30:6, 25:22).
Jesus is both High Priest within us as the temple of God (1 Cor. 3:16), and High Priest in the heavenly places pictured by the physical temple. He is the only one with the right to enter the inner sanctuary of our hearts and minds, and He is the only one who can give us access to the heavenly Mercy Seat.
Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh, and having a High Priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. (Heb. 10:19)
My dear readers, let’s take this time on this Yom Kippur to work towards at-one-ment with our High Priest, and invite Him to dwell in us as His temple. Let’s approach the Mercy Seat with boldness, humility, and repentance as we keep this day for Him.