But Once a Year

But into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people” (Heb. 9:7).

- Hebrews 9:6–7

With the First Advent of Christ, the glory of the new covenant began to be more fully revealed. This covenant, founded on better promises, will make God’s people truly holy because it will cause the law of God to be inscribed upon our hearts (Heb. 8:6–12).

Although Jesus Christ did all the work necessary to bring about the blessings of the new covenant, we find that the full experience of its reality is still to come. The kingdom of God must first slowly grow in the hearts and minds of the elect until the consummation of the kingdom. Until that happens, we live in a period when the new covenant era is coming into its fullness while the former covenant is becoming completely obsolete (8:13).

Since the time of Jesus, the people of God have lived in an age of overlapping eras. Understanding how to live in this period can be difficult. One of the reasons why we have the New Testament is because God desired to explain to His people how to live in the tension between the inauguration and the consummation of His kingdom. It is one of the reasons why the author of Hebrews wrote his epistle.

With the coming of the new covenant, we will see that the sacrifices demanded by the Law have passed away. After the final sacrifice of Christ, the old sacrifices completely cease. But we will also see that the moral codes of the old covenant still apply today, that is, until we are made perfect at the consummation. The author must tell us both these things explicitly so that we will understand both the superiority of Jesus Christ and how to live in this era of redemptive history.

In 9:1–5, the author sets up this teaching by giving a brief description of the temple furniture. In verses 6–7 he moves on to a more explicit description of the old covenant sacrificial system. He tells us that the high priest went into the Holy of Holies only once a year in order to atone both for his sins and for the unintentional sins of the people. This tells us two important things. First, under the old covenant, access to the direct presence of God was limited and this is one reason why it was “faulty.” Second, we see that even unintentional sins must be atoned for. God’s holiness is so comprehensive that even the sins we are not aware of, or do not intend to commit, must be dealt with. By His grace, He has dealt with these sins in Christ.

Coram Deo

No one intends to rush into sin at first. John Calvin reminds us that “men never deliberately rush headlong into ruin, but being entangled in the deceptions of Satan, they lose the power of judging rightly.” Pray that you would guard your heart against temptation and be careful when thinking, “I did not intend to do that.”

Passages for Further Study

Ex. 4:24–26
Lev. 16
2 Chron. 29:20–30
1 Cor. 5:6–8

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