Post last updated on April 24, 2022
Image credit: From "La Grande Bible de Tours" via Wikimedia.org
The Mosaic Law prescribed the yearly offerings of the Jewish high priest, which took place on the Day of Atonement. Hebrews 9:7, drawing from Leviticus 16, recalls that day, how the high priest singularly entered the second section of the tabernacle, called the Holiest of all (Hebrews 9:3, 8).1This phrase, the Holiest of all” borrows from Exodus 26:33, where there is mentioned the division between the two portions of the tabernacle, “the holy place” and “the most holy place.” He thereby passed through an otherwise forbidden veil to accomplish atonement for himself and the people (Hebrews 7:27, 9:7).
This was, of course, a yearly ritual, one in which at least two facts are highlighted. For one—and not at all to be diminished—the sins of the people were covered by the designated sacrifice. By that atonement everyone found a kind of yearly relief; and yet, inasmuch as the same offering was required every year, the people accordingly understood that their sins were not yet taken away. Secondly, then, this was a sacrifice that needed repeating.
In other words, a yearly ritual meant that their sins were also annually remembered (Hebrews 9:8-10, 10:1-4). Ironically, then, the same sacrifice that gave a temporary relief was also grounds for a continual concern: Because the animal sacrifice could not take away sins, the Jewish people all necessarily faced an annual and uncomfortable exercise of their conscience. Of course, the writer of Hebrews employs this fact to show how that Jesus Christ became the mediator of a new and better covenant, for his sacrifice accomplished the salvation that was impossible and unresolved under the first testament alone (Hebrews 9:14-15).
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But it is important to see that the writer, here, addresses more than the legal remedy for sin. He also speaks to the fact that the annual atonement affected the daily service and worship of God in the sanctuary. There was an unmistakable correlation between what first happened in the Holiest of all and what then transpired in the sanctuary, where the priests usually ministered.
This is first illustrated by a negative, the way in which the high priest’s yearly atonement accomplished within the second veil afforded only a limited service and peace in the first sanctuary. Clearly, what the Hebrews writer establishes is that the Levitical priests had a relatively ineffective ministry in respect to the conscience, mainly because the high priest had to yearly offer the atonement:
Now when these things were thus ordained, the priests went always into the first tabernacle, accomplishing the service of God. But into the second went the high priest alone once every year, not without blood, which he offered for himself, and for the errors of the people: The Holy Ghost this signifying, that the way into the holiest of all was not yet made manifest, while as the first tabernacle was yet standing: Which was a figure for the time then present, in which were offered both gifts and sacrifices, that could not make him that did the service perfect, as pertaining to the conscience; Which stood only in meats and drinks, and divers washings, and carnal ordinances, imposed on them until the time of reformation.Hebrews 9:6-10
To put it another way, the regular, daily priestly service necessarily depended upon the yearly offering and character of the high priest; but where that yearly atonement was weak, it accordingly affected the normal ministry of the Levitical priests. Therefore, the Aaronic priesthood presented an unavoidable scenario: The gifts and sacrifices offered by the priests could not perfect the worshipers, if only because the yearly atonement was that of bulls and goats. This is in part what Hebrews 9:9-10 seems to be getting at. The ministry of the regular priests—serving within the sanctuary—found a kind of limitation because of the imperfection of the high priest and his offering in the Holiest of all.
This, then, had its cumulative effect: Not only were the priests limited in their sanctuary service, the worshipers that then relied upon their priestly service in the sanctuary also suffered from the same troubled conscience and consequent imperfections as the priests. The ministry in the sanctuary was always dependent upon the high priest’s offering of the atonement in the holiest place.
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Accordingly, the ideas of 1) the sphere of priestly service and 2) the kind of his service, became demonstrably associated with the character of the high priest and his offering. That said, a positive possibility is also suggested: Had the high priest been able to offer a different and better atonement, the daily sacrifices and worship in the temple sanctuary would have also possessed a different character altogether. An effectual atonement against a bad conscience should have exercised a different kind and flavor of ministry in the sanctuary.
We eventually see, then, the sanctuary as more than a way into the Holiest of all; it is also the way that the high priest returns from his atonement—the place where its priests re-obtained their privileges upon the yearly return of high priest. If the sanctuary’s ministry obtains its task and effectiveness by the ministry of the high priest, one need only to identify the atonement that frees the conscience and the place in which that atonement is made.
To put it another way still, the Levitical priests and their daily service was limited because the holiest part of the sanctuary was still a worldly sanctuary (Hebrews 9:1). If a high priest might be found that could actually enter the heavenlies, his presence in the heavens would truly effect priestly service in the first sanctuary. This, of course, brings us to the New Testament period; but again, it is the Old Testament figure of the tabernacle (cf. Hebrews 9:9) that helps us to better understand what happened when our Lord rose from the dead, thereby effecting the service and worship of all believers.
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Consider again, then, the Day of Atonement. For all of the anxiety that the Israelites—people and priests alike—must have felt in those moments before the high priest entered the holy place on that day, there was most certainly also a kind of relief to everyone when he reappeared from the tabernacle. After all, it was not by his mere entrance into the second tabernacle that the priest obtained peace, but by the high priest’s reappearance from there. The congregation gathered outside the temple to await his return was only assured that that the sacrifice just offered was accepted and that their sins were covered when the high priest exited the tabernacle.
This repeated Old Testament scenario finds a remarkable but single correspondence in the life of the disciples. In those immediate days after the Lord was crucified and had ascended into heaven, his disciples were left discouraged, anxious, and afraid (cf. John 20:19). Their master had been crucified; but they were little aware of how much more had actually transpired. By his death, Jesus Christ had journeyed as a high priest to within the heavenly veil, to offer himself as a better sacrifice for sins (Hebrews 9:24). His subsequent resurrection and reappearance before the disciples, then, recalled the scene when the Aaronic high priest returned from within the second tabernacle. But to the point, the disciples were not merely relieved by his presence among them again, as if they now had strength and courage for just one more year; they were filled with great joy and good news that affected the rest of the world (Luke 24:52). Indeed, joy—even in the midst of suffering—became one of the marks of the disciples, even of the whole church. Paul, therefore, writes to the Romans that believers “also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement” (Romans 5:1). His was the atonement that effected hope and worship.
Because Jesus Christ was a particular kind of priest whose ministry reached into the heavenly sphere, his atonement afforded a legitimate priestly privilege to people who were not Levites at all. It also gave them an effective daily service, even to people who never would nor could enter the Jewish temple of their day. At this point, it is the church that comes into view. The resurrection provided the explanation for all that followed after that day: a people who are not before a people were given the effective ministry in this world as priests (1 Peter 2:9-10). They then went throughout the whole world, mediating the gospel to Jews and Gentiles alike.
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Most will already know that the believer’s ministry as a priest found its rediscovery during the Reformation. It is well known how that Martin Luther highlighted the priesthood of all believers as an argument over and against the Roman Catholic Church’s erroneous ideas of priesthood. But because the biblical doctrine was brought to the fore in controversy, it frequently finds its current discussion in that same historical, Reformation context. Of course, most everyone will affirm that the priesthood of believers is more than an historical concern; indeed, many Christians will affirm that the doctrine stands within the scripture without its historical context; and yet, the historical debate seems to often control the doctrine’s consideration among believers. In fact, I have sometimes met Christians who have difficulty understanding the priesthood of believers, if only because Roman Catholic priesthood so quickly comes to mind as its foil.
The book of Hebrews gives us help in better understanding priesthood, and what it means for believers to be priests. The imagery by which the Hebrews writer controls our understanding is that of the Melchizedekan high priest Jesus Christ, over and against the restraints and weaknesses of the Levitical priesthood. Jesus Christ is the faithful high priest (Hebrews 2:17) who gives priestly position to an otherwise unqualified people. This is the helpful contrast: When the Old Testament Law speaks to priesthood, it confines that service to the tabernacle and the dependent relationship of sanctuary service to what yearly transpired in the Holy of holies. It also restricts priestly membership to an ethnic heritage. On the other hand, when the New Testament speaks of the believers as priests, they are privileged with an earthly service because of what Jesus Christ has accomplished once for all in heaven. In risk of simplifying things, when Christians understand their priestly service only as a contrast to the Roman error, they tend to individualize worship when they should rather universalize service to neighbor and every creature.
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Unsurprisingly then, the believer possesses a freedom and effectiveness in his priestly ministry that the Levitical priests never obtained. The believer’s conscience is purged that he might become a servant of the living God (Hebrews 9:14). This is a statement that stands in direct contrast to the experience of those working in the tabernacle (cf. Hebrews 9:9).
This unexpected privilege of believers was won on the day of our Lord’s crucifixion. Few would have recognized the cross for what it actually became, a place between two sanctuaries. The holiest of all was in the heavens; the earthly realm became the sanctuary. The cross was the veil in between the two. The Aaronic high priest offered a bullock for himself and the people (Leviticus 16:7); but the Lord presented himself. At that moment of time, he stood as both sacrifice and priest (see Hebrews 9:14, 26).
This, then, leaves the earth as the sphere of the believer’s current priestly service. The Levitical priests continued to offer sacrifices in the temple until the day of its destruction, but the death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ meant that the whole world became the place where the church brings forth spiritual sacrifices (1 Peter 2:5, 9). The priests offered gifts and sacrifices of both animal and food; the believer offers all contained in Paul’s admonition: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service” (Romans 12:1).
Again, this priestly service is an earthly service, a membership that is widened as the gospel is believed in every nation. The New Testament informs us to that service’s many duties before God and man, but the Hebrews writer names a few: praise and thanksgiving, gifts and good works (Hebrews 13:15-16). That said, Hebrews 10:24-25 is especially instructive, for there we find a mention of a church, the unsuspected priests of God who provoke one another to love and good works in this world.
And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.Hebrews 10:24-25
The ministry of believers, then, obtain its authority and sphere of ministry in relation to the place from where their high priest2Hebrews 3:1 offered himself and returned three days later. Indeed, the Lord did not proceed behind a curtain in the temple, yearly parted by the sons of Aaron—that was a place chosen by God to place his own name (1 Kings 8:29). Otherwise, the church’s ministry would proceed within the bounds of that temple; but our Lord offered himself upon a cross, a place cursed by men and God. Jesus was forsaken by God where men condemned him (Psalms 22:1, Matthew 15:34). If we can now hardly imagine the dread with which the Aaronic high priest approached the Holiest of all and the presence of God there, we remain utterly uncomprehending of our Lord’s anguish when that presence was removed from at Calvary. And yet, he has now granted his Spirit to believers to minister in this world.
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