17 No one may be in the tent of meeting from the time he enters to make atonement in the Holy Place until he comes out and has made atonement for himself and for his house and for all the assembly of Israel.
18 Then he shall go out to the altar that is before the Lord and make atonement for it, and shall take some of the blood of the bull and some of the blood of the goat, and put it on the horns of the altar all around.
19 And he shall sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times, and cleanse it and consecrate it from the uncleannesses of the people of Israel.
20 And when he has made an end of atoning for the Holy Place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat.
21 And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness.
22 The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness.
1 Now even the first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly place of holiness.
2 For a tent was prepared, the first section, in which were the lampstand and the table and the bread of the Presence. It is called the Holy Place.
3 Behind the second curtain was a second section called the Most Holy Place,
4 having the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, in which was a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron’s staff that budded, and the tablets of the covenant.
5 Above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these things we cannot now speak in detail.
6 These preparations having thus been made, the priests go regularly into the first section, performing their ritual duties,
7 but into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people.
8 By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing
9 (which is symbolic for the present age). According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshipper,
10 but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation.
11 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)
12 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.
13 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.
If you have ever sat down and read through the entire book of Leviticus you will know that it is extremely detailed in precisely how the priests and high priest were to conduct public worship.
It is full rituals and regulations, but in the words of Hebrews 9:5, “Of these things we cannot now speak in detail!”
What we are looking at today is the role of the priests as set out in Leviticus, and how that role has now been taken on and fulfilled by Jesus – plus of course, the implications for us today as He is our Great High Priest.
The function of the priest in Old Testament times was basically to provide access to God for the people, and this brings us into a direct study of the Old Testament law.
One of the most devastating consequences of human sin is separation from God. The moment sin entered the world, we were cut off from God. Genesis 3 ends with a description of a flaming sword flashing back and forth across the entrance to the Garden of Eden. “The Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden He placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.” (Genesis 3:23-24)
This sword prevented man from gaining access to the tree of life, and it symbolised our separation from God.
Years later, when Solomon built the temple, he was told to place a curtain between the people and the Holy of Holies – the place which symbolised the presence of God. That curtain and the flaming sword at the entrance to the Garden performed the same function - it prevented complete access to God by sinful human beings.
On Mount Sinai, God gave Moses the law by which the people of Israel were to serve God. But He warned them that if they were disobedient, He would not bless them, and they would lose the joy of their relationship with Him. Many did break the law, but because of His grace and His love for them, and because God knew the frailty of human nature, He made it possible for those who did break the law to make a sacrifice and once again be accepted by Him.
And so for hundreds of years, God, in accordance with the strict conditions laid down in Leviticus, made provision for the Israelites, His chosen people, to have access to Him through the sacrifice of sheep, goats, turtledoves, and other animals. This happened initially in the tabernacle, which was basically a tent used while they were wandering around in the desert, and eventually the temple which was built when they finally settled in the Promised Land.
But it was in the tabernacle and then in the temple that these sacrifices had to be offered. Any other place was not acceptable.
Not only that, but the people had to bring their sacrifices to the priests to be offered on the altar. They were not allowed to make sacrifices themselves. Also, the priests could go further into the temple than the laymen could. They had access to the Holy Place, but of the priests there was one priest and only one who could go from the Holy Place, beyond the curtain and into the Holy of Holies.
Only the high priest was allowed to make sacrifices in there on the Day of Atonement. In there the high priest would make a sacrifice to atone for the sins of the people, and this took place only once a year on the Day of Atonement.
On this day he went through a strict ritual as he first purified and cleansed himself, and then two goats were used for the sacrifice for the people. The first one, called the scapegoat, had all the sins of the people laid on it through a ritual and was then turned out into the wilderness. Into the desert this particular goat carried away the sins of the people, while the other goat became the sacrifice.
The Jews believed that life was in the blood. This principle was a crucial part of the sacrificial system. The animal had to die in order to gain access to its blood. Then the blood of that animal was taken and sprinkled on the altar and symbolically, at least, sprinkled on the people.
At first glance all of this seemed rather strange, but God doesn’t do anything without a good reason, and the point of the blood of the sacrificial animal being sprinkled on the people was this:
Blood is life. Without blood, there is no life, and the blood of the animal was given to the animal by God in order for it to live. The sacrificial death of the animal meant that the people could now live in a relationship with God once more, because of the blood which was given up for them.
Human sin brought death, but the blood of the sacrificial animal brought life once more. It brought man and God together. It brought about ‘at-one-ment’ - atonement.
So once again, sinful man and Holy God were brought together.
However, the system was not perfect, because we continued to sin.
No sooner had atonement been accomplished, than it was needed again.
The opening verses of Hebrews 10 puts it like this:
“For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshippers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” (Hebrews 10:1-4)
The sacrificial system in the Old Testament highlighted two main points: Firstly, there was a need for sinful human beings to be reconciled to God, and secondly, although it fulfilled this purpose, it wasn’t perfect, no matter how many times it was repeated. It kind of did what it was meant to do, but there was still something missing.
In order for atonement to be perfect and permanent, a new way was needed. We read all through the Old Testament that the people of Israel had a struggle trying to get right and stay right with God.
The Gospels tell us that Jesus’ death on the cross would be the only perfect and acceptable sacrifice. Everything in the Old Testament points us to Christ.
If we were to sum up the Old Testament in just one sentence, it would be this: It tells us of our desperate need to be made right with God.
The New Testament summary is as follows: It tells us how our desperate need to be made right with God has been provided for.
But how was this need been provided for? What we need to remember is that Jesus is God. He is eternal, He is perfect, He is Holy, and He is the God of Creation. He could have chosen to stay in His rightful place – His throne in Heaven. God could have chosen to leave us to our own devices the moment we rejected Him and sinned, but He didn’t. Out of His great love for us, He chose the way of suffering, the way of dying, the way of the cross.
Aaron was the first high priest. At the time of Jesus’ death it was Caiaphas, but Caiaphas missed the entire point of what happened at Calvary. He thought they were just getting rid of a troublemaker who had the nerve to claim He was the promised Messiah.
What actually happened was this: Just as Aaron condemned a goat to die in the wilderness on behalf of the people, and another goat was slaughtered for its blood, so Caiaphas condemned Jesus to die at Calvary – a place outside of the city, as our scapegoat, and His life-giving blood was also shed on the cross.
Once we are able to make the connection between what happened at Calvary with the sacrificial system given to Moses and Aaron in Leviticus, all of the bloodshed on the altar of the temple for all those years suddenly makes sense.
Another example is God’s instruction to Abraham to kill and sacrifice his son Isaac. Try to imagine for a moment that you were reading Genesis 22 for the very first time. You get to verse 2: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”
Assuming for a moment that you’d never read those words before, what would your reaction be? Horror? Disbelief? How could a God of love possibly say that? All of the above?
If you stop at verse 2 you will never understand what God is saying to us in this story. Verses 7 and 8 record part of the conversation between Abraham and Isaac, and here we are given a hint of what was to come: “Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘My father!’ And he said, ‘Here I am, my son.’ He said, ‘Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?’ Abraham said, ‘God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.’”
And the death of Jesus pulls it all together and makes the whole thing crystal clear.
We should be horrified by what Abraham was told to do, but that’s the whole point. In order to understand the lengths God went to in order for us to be forgiven, we need to be struck to the very heart at the awful depravity of our sin. In order to appreciate what we have been saved for, we first have to know what we have been saved from.
Would you agree to killing your own child or grandchild if it meant that someone else who deserved to die would be spared? Of course you wouldn’t. But God did, and that’s the whole point. That’s what He wants us to see.
Genesis 22 is not a horror story. It is a beautiful, graphic picture of the mercy and love of God.
The moment that Jesus died on the cross the curtain in the temple that separated the Holy of Holies from the Holy Place was torn in two from top to bottom. This meant that the people could now enter into the presence of God by a whole new way. Through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ on Calvary, we now once and for all have access to God, a privilege previously reserved only for priests.
As God had provided a substitute nearly 2000 years before, He now provided access to Himself through the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world – that one, perfect sacrifice who became the scapegoat and substitute for you and for me.
We deserve death – not just physical death in this life, but eternal, spiritual death – a place of eternal separation from God.
Because of our sin, we had no access to God, and we were cut off from Him. Hence, the Old Testament sacrificial system, but because of the imperfection of the sacrificial system, people had no perfect access to God until that day when Jesus died on Calvary.
The new way is Jesus. In order to understand just what Jesus has done for us, we need some kind of grasp on the Old Testament sacrifices - what they symbolised, and what they achieved. And we also need to understand the role of the priests in the Old Testament. The Law, the temple, the altar, the Holy of Holies, and the sacrifices are crucial to our understanding of our faith, because they all point us directly to Jesus.
The Old Testament prophets were the agents, and the Old Testament itself was the vehicle which anticipated the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The good news which was prophesied and hoped for, is now realised. That which was a shadow, now becomes substance. What was promised, is now fulfilled in Him.
And now there is no more need for sacrifices, because of the one perfect sacrifice of Jesus.
So what do we mean when we say that Jesus is our great High Priest?
He is the temple in which God dwells. He is the new law. He is the altar. He is the sacrifice. He is the Holy of Holies. He fulfills the temple worship and the sacrificial system, the law, the temple, and the need for priests and go-betweens in a person’s personal relationship to God. He is all of these things, and He is Himself, our Great High Priest.
All that the Bible says about the laws and the temple with all of its rituals, Jesus became by His death.
This is exactly what He was talking about when He said in Matthew 5:17, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”
Hebrews 7:23 to 8:2 says, “The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, but He holds His priesthood permanently, because He continues forever. Consequently, He is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them. 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. For the law appoints men in their weakness as high priests, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever. Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man.”
The theologian John Piper writes about these verses, “The great and overarching point of this text at the end of chapter 7 and the beginning of chapter 8 is that we have a great High Priest, Jesus Christ, who came into the world as the Son of God, lived a sinless life, offered Himself as a perfect sacrifice for the sins of His people, rose to everlasting life at the right hand of the majesty of God, and there loves us and prays for us and bids us draw near to God through Him. He did not come to fit into the old system of priestly sacrifices. He came to fulfill them and end them. He is the reality; they were the shadow and the copy of the reality. When the reality comes, the shadow passes away.”
The main point of the book of Hebrews is that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, did not come just to fit into the earthly system of priestly ministry as the best and final human priest, but He came to fulfill and put an end to that system and bring our attention onto Himself. The Old Testament tabernacle and priests and sacrifices were shadows. Now the reality has come and the shadows pass away.
Our very salvation would not have been possible had Jesus not died for us, but now we have Him as our Great High Priest. He is our eternal Priest who has given us free access to our heavenly Father.
You and I have complete and total access to our Father. Today, tomorrow, and for all of eternity.
Homegroup Study Notes
In order to prepare for your meeting, read Leviticus chapter 16.
(If you’re feeling particularly inspired, read the whole of Leviticus!)
Why do you think God’s instructions to Moses were so detailed and meticulous?
In which ways have the roles of modern ministers or pastors changed in comparison to Old Testament times?
How have they remained the same?
Read Genesis 22:1-18
The story of Abraham being told to sacrifice Isaac is a clear prophecy of the sacrifice of Jesus, yet most non-believers and many Christians see God’s command to Abraham as extremely cruel and are deeply offended by what they read in Genesis 22.
Why do you think there is this misunderstanding?
How would you answer the accusation that a God of love would never ask such a thing?
Read Hebrews 7:23-8:2
What do we mean when we call Jesus our ‘Great High Priest?’
Discuss the differences between high priests like Aaron and Caiaphas, and the role which Jesus now fulfills as the high priest.