Post last updated on April 24, 2022
Image credit: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam via Wikimedia Commons
A significant feature and irony of the Jewish Day of Atonement is that it required the high priest’s once-yearly entrance into a place that was otherwise forbidden to men. Leviticus 16:2-3 records that situation:
And the LORD said unto Moses, Speak unto Aaron thy brother, that he come not at all times into the holy place within the vail before the mercy seat, which is upon the ark; that he die not: for I will appear in the cloud upon the mercy seat. Thus shall Aaron come into the holy place: with a young bullock for a sin offering, and a ram for a burnt offering.Leviticus 16:2-3
The command to remain outside the holy place provided the normal situation. That normal situation, however, was interrupted once every year, when the high priest was required to enter the holy place to secure an atonement for himself and his people—the same place that was usually forbidden to him. This irony, then, became the eventual cause of another irony: The high priest’s abnormal entrance into the tabernacle moved the people closer to man’s intended relationship with their God. It predicted man’s normal relationship with God by a better sacrifice.
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In other words, for all the real anxiety that would have attended the high priest’s entrance into the far end of the tabernacle, it actually predicted a situation in which there would be no anxiety, but joy and glory in the service of God. That was the situation for which man had been first created; but after the Fall, that reality would only be accomplished by the Lord’s death, burial, and resurrection. One important point of the Day of Atonement was to proclaim how that joy and glory would be reclaimed by a death. The span between heaven and earth was bridged by an unlikely altar, provided for in the cross.
In other words, the Day of Atonement was not merely a ritual to placate a vengeful God; it rather demonstrated the condition upon which man might again obtain his intended privilege—the worship and blessing of his creator. Man was originally created to live in the presence of God; however, the fact that the high priests yearly carried an offering for himself and his people recalled that something had interrupted the former intention. Sin was the cause of that interruption; death confirmed the interruption and separation. Accordingly, death was employed to overthrow the separation caused by sin.
The new tragic normal that followed the Fall, then, replaced its former and superior situation. A real and final separation between God and man had occurred in Eden when Adam sinned, one realized in both relation and space. It affected man’s privileges in God’s presence. It affected his priesthood. When Adam sinned, he was sent forth from the garden in Eden, cursed to till the land from where he was first taken (Genesis 3:24). But his ejection from the garden represented something more than a punishment; it was the formal verdict of Adam’s priestly privileges as God’s son.1See a previous post, A Mountain Sanctuary.
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The tabernacle worship that was later incorporated into Jewish life confirmed the newer, tragic normal, but it also demonstrated a hope against the former tragedy. Significantly, both the tragedy and hope were incorporated in the very design of the tabernacle. A curtain divided two different sanctuaries, one in which the priest usually accomplished the service of God (Hebrews 9:6), and another, second section in which the high priest entered only to offer the yearly atonement (Hebrews 9:7).
The high priest—like the other priests—was usually separated from the presence of God, which was manifested behind the curtain, in the second section. The high priest’s yearly entrance into that holy place was only effected by the death of a bullock (Leviticus 16:11). A lesson embedded in the tabernacle order was this: If there might arise a better sacrifice, then a better situation might also be granted, one characterized by God’s very presence (cf. Hebrews 9:8). More to the point, that better hope arises upon the fact that Jesus was not only the better sacrifice, but also the better kind of priest. And he was a better kind of priest because he was the Son of God.2He became the high priest who offered himself (Hebrews 9:14, 26).
To accomplish the better hope predicted in the tabernacle, priesthood must necessarily be re-related to God himself. The need for a better priest exposed the deficiencies of the Levitical order of priesthood, for it was still connected to Adam. That is, it depended upon men who possessed a sinful human nature. This effect is impossible to exaggerate: Salvation would not be accomplished until priestly duties could be carried out by those unaffected by Adam’s fall. The better situation between God and men was purchased because Jesus entered into the holy place as a priest who was also the son of God. The Hebrews writer shows us how these identities—priest and son—are united in Jesus Christ. They were initially united in Adam, but later divided by the Fall. They then remained separated in the Aaronic order. It is the fact of their unification in Jesus Christ upon which the Epistle to the Hebrews describes and founds the believer’s hope. The high priest of our confession was also God’s own son (Hebrews 3:1-6).
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Old Testament priesthood was never obtained by a man because of his aspiration; it was always conferred by God, according to God’s will (Hebrews 5:4). Consequently, Old Testament priesthood was bound up in the lineage to which it was first established. Every priest was related to Aaron. Jesus could never have obtained a place in the Levitical priesthood, for he was not of the sons of Aaron. But if he was not related to Aaron, he was related to God. And that is the essential point upon which his entrance into heaven depended.
God conferred to his only begotten Son, Jesus, the calling of priest in a different order—what the scriptures call the order of Melchizedek. God called him (Hebrews 5:10). When the Lord Jesus is called a high priest, it is not along any natural relation to Aaron, for that did not exist; but he is called a high priest after a kind and order of priesthood that preceded the Aaronic variety. Importantly, the privileges and power of each kind of priesthood depended upon its lineage and associations.
That Melchizedekian order is frequently associated and related to God himself, rather than Aaron.3See, for instance, Hebrews 7:1-22, where the Melchizedekian priesthood is related to God himself, rather than to men of natural descent, and an oath rather than the inevitability in a lineage. For this reason, the Hebrew’s writer emphasizes that the high priest of the new covenant is God’s own son (Hebrews 4:14). The high priest after the order of Melchizedek is God’s own obedient son (Hebrews 5:8-10). In the person of the Lord Jesus, the relational and moral integrity of the high priest provided for his entrance into the very place forbidden to the high priest of the Levitical order—the holiest of all, the tabernacles of God in heaven (Hebrews 9:8, 24). Indeed, Hebrews 9:24 tells us that Jesus’ relation to God as a son and priest takes him before the very face of God in heaven. That priestly entrance into the heavenlies obtains an intimacy never experienced by men before that day. It was only insofar as the Son of God became a man, that priesthood found such privilege and power in a man.
In its effective form, then, priesthood is not merely ritualistic; it is relational. Or, we may say that the new testament priesthood is effective because it depended upon a higher and purer relation than possible among men who are sinners and mortals. He was a better priest because he was the Son of God. He then obtained a better privilege than the Old Covenant provided: By his entrance into the heavenly tabernacle, the Lord accomplished the redemption for sins committed under the first testament (Hebrews 9:15).4Paul makes this point in Romans, as well. The salvation of men was never provided for in the Old Testament sacrifices, but God forbore those sins on account of the future Jesus righteousness and his propitiation of sins on the cross (Romans 3:21-26). It is also important to see that Hebrews 9:15 links the salvation of Old Testament saints to the Abrahamic promise: the “promise of eternal inheritance.” It is not founded in the Mosaic Law. Jesus’ priesthood obtained that which Aaron’s could never win. He obtained an eternal redemption (Hebrews 9:12).
Notes & References
|↑1||See a previous post, A Mountain Sanctuary.|
|↑2||He became the high priest who offered himself (Hebrews 9:14, 26).|
|↑3||See, for instance, Hebrews 7:1-22, where the Melchizedekian priesthood is related to God himself, rather than to men of natural descent, and an oath rather than the inevitability in a lineage.|
|↑4||Paul makes this point in Romans, as well. The salvation of men was never provided for in the Old Testament sacrifices, but God forbore those sins on account of the future Jesus righteousness and his propitiation of sins on the cross (Romans 3:21-26). It is also important to see that Hebrews 9:15 links the salvation of Old Testament saints to the Abrahamic promise: the “promise of eternal inheritance.” It is not founded in the Mosaic Law.|