[Warning: This is going to be another long post]
The posts over the last several weeks have generally all been focused on the cross of Christ (and rightly so), namely His atoning death and the penalty He took which was due to sinners. The reason for this focus was that I became aware some months ago that my knowledge of the cross was shamefully lacking. This isn’t to say that I now have it all figured out, but to simply highlight the importance of knowing what the Bible has to say concerning Christ’s death. Since it is central to the Christian faith, I want to encourage you to likewise study deeply on the cross of Jesus because it magnifies the character of God, it amplifies the love that He has for His children, and it puts on display who Jesus is and how truly amazing it is that He would die for sinners.
I would encourage you to take a few minutes to review some of the other posts on Atonement before reading this one. Survey of the Cross, Part 1, SA – A Response, SA – A Response Part 2, Suffering Servant, A Tension at the Cross
In the first post of this series we examined the meaning of Atonement first from several helpful definitions and then from a biblical perspective, primarily through Leviticus 16, where we saw the high priest Aaron was instructed to perform specific duties as God outlined the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) to Moses. Recall in that passage that the practices on this day were to be repeated every year. In addition to the daily sacrifices made by priests, this day was set aside as a holy day of rest or Sabbath (Leviticus 23:26-32). As we read through the passage from Leviticus, three important duties were defined for Aaron: 1) He was to sacrifice a bull as a sin offering for himself and his household 2) He was to sacrifice a goat as a sin offering for the people of Israel 3) He was to “transfer” the sin of the people onto a “scapegoat” that would then take the sins of the people outside the camp and into the wilderness. These high priestly duties were taken very seriously and it was with great fear, reverence, and deliberation that they were performed exactly as instructed. Now, as promised we need to look at how this relates to Jesus, specifically His atonement which we will include as part of His “work” on the cross.
Jesus the High Priest
In the Book of Hebrews, we are provided with an excellent account of not only the Old Testament work of the high priest, but also the High Priestly role of Jesus Christ. We get our first look at Christ’s fulfillment of this position in Hebrews 2:17 as the author is describing the supremacy and incarnation of Jesus, “Therefore He had to be made like His brothers in every respect, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” Without going into the details of this passage (perhaps in a future post), let’s look at a second passage describing Jesus as High Priest,
“14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. 1 For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. 2 He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness. 3 Because of this he is obligated to offer sacrifice for his own sins just as he does for those of the people. 4 And no one takes this honor for himself, but only when called by God, just as Aaron was. 5 So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him, ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you’; 6 as he says also in another place, ‘You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.’” Hebrews 4:14-5:6
First, let’s note in this passage, as well as the one above it from Hebrews 2:17, that we read of Jesus’ humanity in His role as High Priest, “made like His brothers in every respect” which means made into human likeness. Likewise we read of the impeccability of Jesus’ human nature, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” Why is it significant that Jesus should be fully man and that His sinless humanity should be so emphasized? Note Hebrews 4:16, “For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God”. The high priest was chosen from among men to act on behalf of men. This is important because Christ fulfills the role of High Priest as a man interceding for men, therefore giving great significance to the biblical truth of the necessity for Jesus, the Son of God, to be fully man.
But note here the second truth to which we’ve just alluded, Jesus’ divinity, i.e. the Son of God. Hebrews 5:5, “So also Christ did not exalt Himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by Him who said to Him, ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you’”. This language should be familiar to us as it reminds us of Matthew 3:17, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” and also John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son….” John 3:16 (NKJV) It was likewise a necessity for the office of High Priest to be filled by Jesus because He is not only fully man, but fully God. Read again what Hebrews 5:2-3 says about the previous high priests, “since he [the high priest] himself is beset with weakness. 3 Because of this he is obligated to offer sacrifice for his own sins just as he does for those of the people.” Because Jesus is both fully God and fully man, He does not have this same “weakness”, namely sin, that the other high priests had and He therefore did not have to make a sacrifice for His personal cleansing. This brings us to the first function of the high priest that we talked about at the beginning of this post, the requirement to make a sacrifice for himself and his family. Since Jesus was sinless, He had no need to make a sacrifice for Himself. He is holy and blameless and therefore He alone can make the sacrifice which is sufficient to save. The cleansing, personal sacrifice made by the high priest was necessary to bring the priest into a right relationship with God. This restoration was unnecessary for Jesus because He IS God and the Trinitarian relationship with His Father is perfect, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30) and “I am in the Father and the Father is in Me” (John 14:10) Hebrews 7:26-27 offers an excellent summary of this point, “For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself.”
Next, we need to look at the other sacrifices made by the high priests, namely the two goats. Remember, the first one was killed and its blood sprinkled on the mercy seat for the forgiveness of the Israelites sins (Leviticus 16:15-16). The mercy seat, as we learned in part 1, covered the Ark of the Covenant, which contained the Law (think 10 Commandments). How then does this relate to Jesus’ role as High Priest? As High Priest, the sacrifice that Jesus made was Himself. It was His own blood, poured out “on the mercy seat”, as it were, that made propitiation for the sins of His people. Think about this, the blood of Jesus was able to procure mercy for His people because it satisfied the justice of God, namely His wrath towards ungodliness.
This is an amazing role accomplished by Christ, as not only did He serve as High Priest to make intercession for the people and atonement for their sins, but was Himself the sacrifice! Just as in the Old Testament priests sprinkled the blood of the sacrifice onto the mercy seat, thereby making atonement, Jesus likewise, by way of His own blood poured out, made atonement for all those who by faith place their trust in Him. The blood of Jesus, infinitely purer and holier than that of an Old Testament sacrifice is the only thing sufficient to purify us from our sins. Note the following passages:
“Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” Hebrews 9:22 This passage highlights the necessity of bloodshed required for the forgiveness of sin, therefore Christ’s death was a necessary requirement.
“For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” Hebrews 10:4 Here we see that the blood from the animal sacrifices of old were insufficient for the actual removal of sin. Jesus’ death was infinitely superior and sufficient.
“For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” Hebrews 9:13-14 Now the transition from the imperfect, insufficient Old Testament animal sacrifices to the all-sufficient sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ.
At this point, it’s important to make several connections. This “sacrifice of atonement” that Jesus made, namely Himself is the word propitiation. Note the translations below:
“God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood – to be received by faith….” Romans 3:25 NIV
“Whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” Romans 3:25 ESV
Through His sacrificial and willing bloodshed, Jesus Christ was a propitiation, literally appeasing the wrath of God that was bent towards sinners (John 3:36, Romans 5:1, 5:9-10, Ephesians 2:3). Let there be no misunderstanding here, God the Father and God the Son were not at odds with one another, thereby a loving Son placating the wrath of an angry Father. No, look at what the passage above from Romans says, “Whom God put forward”. It was the work of a loving Father (John 3:16), in concert with the love and willingness of the Son to satisfy the legal demands held against sinners. (Colossians 2:14) In doing this, God the Father propitiated or satisfied His own wrath, through the propitiation He provided, namely His Son Jesus. “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.” Romans 5:9 Lord willing the next post in this series will attempt to better explain the idea of propitiation.
Continuing with our discussion of Jesus’ High Priestly role, remember that the Levitical high priest also placed his hands on the live goat, transferring the guilt and sin of the Israelites and then sending the “scapegoat” outside of the camp into the wilderness. This is the term expiation, the second part of propitiation which we just looked at. It too was accomplished through the substitutionary atonement of Jesus as He removed the guilt from His people. Like the goat of Leviticus, the sins of those who place their faith in Jesus have been “imputed” to Him and have been removed “into the wilderness” or as Psalm 103:12 states, “as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us” never to return again.
There is SO much more that could be said about Jesus’ role as High Priest (for more, read from Hebrews chapters 5-10). The biblical truth is that Jesus fulfills the office of High Priest and that it is He that mediates the New Covenant between God and man, “…there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5). This should serve as a stark warning to those religions or movements that feel man needs an earthly priest to make intercession (or confession to) or that somehow the virgin Mary serves as intercessor. An assumption that an earthly priest is necessary is a direct assault on the sufficiency of Christ’s completed work as High Priest. Dear friends, it is Christ alone. He is the only one who can intercede and He alone is sufficient to fulfill that duty.
As High Priest, Jesus not only made the necessary sacrifice, but gave Himself as that sacrifice. Being fully God and fully man, He was the only one that could make that sacrifice. The awesome love that God displayed on the cross in giving His own Son as a propitiation, to appease His own wrath, should be enough to make you bow down and worship. If you are an unbeliever, we’ve only just scratched the surface of what God has done in Christ, yet unless you repent (turn from your sins) and trust in Christ, then you cannot experience it. Believers, look to God’s Word and examine all that He has done for you. Your response is to live your life in worship completely devoted to Him.
“But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” Hebrews 10:12-14