The Day of Atonement was a Copy of Christ’s Atonement
It is common to think of the Old Testament ritual as providing the model that Jesus’ priesthood subsequently copied and fulfilled. But Hebrews sees things differently. The Old Testament ritual of the high priest moving through the tabernacle—with its various rooms and furniture, especially the Holy of Holies and the ark with the mercy seat—is not the model but the copy (Heb. 8:5).
Christ has made a way into heaven; that is the reality. Hebrews has much to say about this. Jesus “went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is … not a part of this creation” (Heb. 9:11, NIV). “With His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all” (Heb. 9:12). In fact, Jesus now ministers in the heavenly tabernacle (Heb. 8:2).
Notice what grips the mind of the author: if the copy (the wilderness tabernacle) needed purification, then the “heavenly things themselves [had to be purified] with better sacrifices” (Heb. 9:23). But what is this purifying of heavenly things?
For the people to be brought symbolically and temporarily into the presence of God, every part of the tabernacle had to be ritually cleansed, since nothing defiled could be employed in man’s approach to a holy God (Heb. 9:19–23). Therefore, on the Day of Atonement, Aaron slew a sacrifice, entered the Holy of Holies with the blood, and poured it out on the mercy seat between the cherubim (Lev. 16:15–16).
This ritual was an acted parable, a copy of what Christ was to do on the great day when He made atonement. The blood of animals is both inappropriate and inadequate to provide the cleansing necessary to approach God. Animal sacrifice could not atone for human sin. Neither could any finite individual atone for sin against the infinite God. Only the blood of the divine image incarnate could cleanse our sin and enable us to enter safely into the presence of God, who is a consuming fire (Heb. 1:3; 12:29).
The work of atonement took place in the presence of the God of heaven. Indeed, it involved a transaction within the fellowship of the persons of the eternal Trinity in their love for us: the Son was willing, with the aid of the Spirit, to experience the hiding of the Father’s face. The shedding of the blood of God’s Son opened the way to God for us (Acts 20:28). That is both the horror and the glory of our Great High Priest’s ministry.
This is theology of the most exalted and mind-stunning nature. It dwarfs our sometimes overly pragmatic view of what is central to real spirituality. Yet what makes such theology so awe-inspiring is this—God is here at His most pragmatic; a glorious end justifies the most terrible means. Without those means there can be no remission of sins. Here theology of the deepest kind is pragmatism of the highest order.
Take time to meditate long and hard on this aspect of Christ’s priesthood and on its implications. Hebrews refers to at least four conclusions to be drawn. Since you have such a Great High Priest, who by His blood has opened a new and living way into the Most Holy Place (10:19–20):
- Draw near to God in full assurance (10:22).
- Do not draw back from running the Christian race (10:39).
- Fix your eyes on Jesus since He is such a great Savior (12:1–2).
- Be prepared to go outside the camp, sharing Christ’s humiliation (13:13–14).
This is the pathway on which Christ will lead you into the presence of God.
This post is an excerpt from Sinclair Ferguson’s In Christ Alone.