On the Day of Atonement, a sinful priest would offer an ineffective sacrifice that would temporarily atone for the sins of the people. Christ came as a holy priest with an effective sacrifice to offer an eternal solution.
The book of Hebrews discusses in great detail how Jesus Christ is the ultimate High Priest. He accomplished what the Levitical priests could only be hopeful of. Hebrews 2:17 describes how He came to earth to become like man “in order that He might become a merciful and faithful High Priest in service to God, and that He might make atonement for the sins of the people”. He was tempted yet victorious. Earthly priests were weak and full of sin. They needed to offer a sacrifice to cleanse themselves before they could offer a sacrifice for their people. Jesus is far superior to the earthly priests. He was sinless so He did not need atonement for Himself. He is able to take His people into God’s presence, persistently pray for them, and provide holiness and purity.1 Hebrews 9:24 explains how He entered into Heaven to continue His work for mankind in God’s presence. He is holy, He is eternal, and His priesthood is permanent.
On the Day of Atonement, the High Priest would sprinkle the blood of animals upon the Mercy Seat. It is important to note that animal sacrifices could never fully eradicate the effects of sin; it was a shadowy copy of the ideal atonement.2 It is known from Leviticus 17:11 “it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life”. This type of sacrifice was completely ineffective. Hebrews 9:12 describes the blood of goats and bulls as ceremonially clean yet only able to sanctify a person to be outwardly clean. The sacrifice Jesus made was not that of an unwilling animal; He went to the cross as a willing sacrifice to give His own blood.3 He lived a perfect life with no sin and then gave His life as a ransom so that anyone could be forgiven. Hebrews 9:14 eloquently tells how Jesus, “through the eternal Spirit offered Himself unblemished to God to cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God”.
The Israelites made sacrifices daily, but the Day of Atonement happened only once a year at an appointed time to illustrate that Christ would die only once at God’s perfectly appointed time.4 The sacrifices made by the Levitical priests were temporary. They were unable to clear the conscience of the Israelites, they could not bring liberty to one’s spirit, and the moment a person sinned they were no longer clean.5 Hebrews 10:10 proclaims that the sacrifice Jesus made through His own body was once and for all. It was permanent. Jesus only needed to offer a single sacrifice and that sacrifice needed no repetition.6 The priests had to continually do their work and repeatedly offer their sacrifices while Jesus was able to sit down at the right hand of God having finished His work of sacrificing for sins.7
On the Day of Atonement, a sinful priest made an ineffective and temporary sacrifice. On the day of crucifixion, a sacrifice was also made. Only this time it was a perfect sacrifice for an eternal atonement of sins because the blood that was offered was Jesus Christ’s. Just as the Israelites were called to observe a Sabbath rest while the priests completed their tasks, God calls His people today to do the same. A new covenant has been offered and it is strictly because of the completed work of Christ. As God’s followers, His people are to rest in those promises and preserve in faith. God vows in Hebrews 12:28 that His kingdom cannot be shaken, and He goes on to tell His people they should be thankful and worship Him with reverence and awe. This is because, as Jesus Himself said, it is finished.
- Anders and Lea, Holman New Testament Commentary, 127
- Hanno Langenhoven et al., “The Day of Atonement as a Hermeneutical Key to the Understanding of Christology in Hebrews,” Journal of Early Christian History 1:1 (2011): 92
- Don Stewart, “How is Jesus’ Priesthood Better than that of the Earthly Priests?,” Blue Letter Bible, accessed February 24, 2020, https://www.blueletterbible.org/faq/don_stewart/don_stewart_1359.cfm
- C.H. Spurgeon, “The Day of Atonement: A Sermon,” Blue Letter Bible, August 10, 1856, accessed February 24, 2020, https://www.blueletterbible.org/Comm/spurgeon_charles/sermons/0095.cfm
- Anders and Lea, Holman New Testament Commentary, 167
- Anders and Lea, Holman New Testament Commentary, 137
- David Guzik, “Study Guide for Hebrews 10,” The Enduring Word Commentary, March 10, 2017