In Leviticus chapter sixteen, Yahweh gave to Israel the instruction about what was to be done once a year on the Day of Atonement. On this day the high priest was to enter the Holy of Holies and make atonement for the nation. The Israelites were sinners and the presence of the tabernacle in the midst of Israel meant that it was being defiled by their sin. This situation had to be addressed..
However, coming into the presence of the holy God is no small thing. Yahweh said that, “Aaron shall present the bull as a sin offering for himself, and shall make atonement for himself and for his house. He shall kill the bull as a sin offering for himself.” First the high priest was to kill the bull and sprinkle the blood over the mercy seat – the cover of the Ark of the Covenant – for himself. Then he was to bring the goat that had been chosen by lot. He was to kill the goat and sprinkle the blood before and upon the mercy seat. In this way the tabernacle was purified from the sin of the nation.
Only once a year did the high priest enter the Holy of Holies – the latter third of the Tabernacle where the Ark of the Covenant was located. To do so at any other time meant death. But it was also something that needed to be done every year. The sin of the people was a contagion that had to be removed if Yahweh was continue to dwell in their midst with the cover of the Ark of the Covenant as his throne.
In the epistle lesson for today, the writer to the Hebrews discusses the Day of Atonement as he contrasts where Jesus Christ did his work on our behalf, how often he did it and what was used in doing so. He begins by saying, “But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.”
In the previous chapter, the writer to the Hebrews had pointed out how Moses had received the design for the tabernacle. The decision wasn’t left up to Moses. Instead we are told, “They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. For when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, ‘See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.’”
When we build a church, the options for the design of the building are really only limited by the budget. Travel around and you will see so many different styles of church. But this was not the case for Moses and Israel. When it came time to build the tabernacle, Moses did not have any such options. Instead Yahweh gave him the pattern that he was to follow. We learn that this pattern for the tabernacle on earth in some way reflected the heavenly reality. We hear later in this chapter, “For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.”
Our text goes on to say, “he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.
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, 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.”
The Old Testament high priest had to use the blood of animals to be able to enter the Holy of Holies and purify it. He had to do it once a year. He could only do it once a year. To deviate from these instructions meant death. These factors are a reminder to us about the reality of our sin. The ways that we fear, love and trust in things other than God; the ways we love ourselves more than our neighbors are sin that not only cut us off from God. They demand his wrath and judgment. As the writer to the Hebrews reminds his readers later, “our God is a consuming fire.”
The blood of animals on the Day of Atonement was only a temporary solution to the problem. It was an answer that pointed forward to something far greater. And so we learn in our text that Jesus “entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.”
The means by which Jesus Christ entered the heavenly presence of God was his own blood – his loving sacrifice on the cross. It is in this way he won redemption for you. He freed you from the slavery of sin.
Jesus Christ, true God and true man, offered himself in this way. This had been the goal since the first sin entered the world and God said to the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”
Because it was the planned culmination of God dealing with sin; because it was the sacrifice of the incarnate Son of God, it only happened once. That’s why our text says, “he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.”
Later in this chapter the author goes on to say, “Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.”
There were numerous occasions when the Romans crucified hundreds and even thousands of people at the same time. Many people died in this humiliating and painful way. But because of who Jesus is, his death was different from all the others. He had been sent by God at a particular moment in time in order to carry out a work of eternal consequence. His life, death and resurrection mark the fact that it is now the end of the ages. We live in eager expectation of his return on the Last Day.
And now, because of Jesus Christ, we approach God in confidence. In the next chapter the writer to the Hebrews says, “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God,
let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” Through faith in Jesus we know that we can approach God with assurance and confidence.
We do so because Jesus Christ is our great high priest who has who has appeared in heaven on our behalf. He entered once and for all by the means his own blood. And he continues to be our high priest. Earlier in this letter are told, “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. 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. 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.”
This crucified and risen Lord understands us. He sympathizes with our weaknesses. He has experienced temptation. He gave himself over to death on the cross in order to save us. And so we can approach him with confidence because we receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
In our text, the writer to the Hebrews does not think that Jesus’ once and for all sacrifice means nothing more than forgiveness and salvation for us. Instead, he works from the lesser to the greater in our text as he writes, “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, 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.”
The author says that the blood of Jesus purifies our conscience from dead works – works that are not characterized by faith and instead are prompted by sin – so that we can serve the living God. He says something similar in the next chapter when he adds that “since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh,
and since we have a great priest over the house of God …
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
The once for all sacrifice of Jesus Christ has given us eternal redemption. He has freed us to love and serve others. Our works become truly good in God’s eyes because they are done in Christ. The once and for all sacrifice of Jesus has become the reason that we seek to love and serve at all times.