The ancient people of God were bound by the law. Daily, it screamed out their failures in unbiased, unrelenting terms. The law was perfect and pure. It revealed wisdom. Although the law was good in every part, the human heart defaulted to self reliance every time. And so the law was broken over and over again.
Heart proud, the people were distanced from what their heart needed most–God’s presence and power. (photo credit: ravenwhimsey)
Every day this constant need for reconciliation was met at an altar. Every day the heart was reminded, for each day brought a new need for reconciliation. Continually needy, the ancient Israeli priests would begin afresh the work of mediation between God and His people.
The High Priest
The rites of purification had been completed. The man’s wrinkled skin had been scrubbed clean in strict rituals. The old man had been a priest for many years, and the rules had remained constant and rigid, never changing at the break of dawn. The separation between God and the people remained fixed, for there was never enough soap to cleanse away their inherent disunion with complete holiness. The distance between the people and their God was so vast that there would not be a way to reach the other side at all had not God El Elyon (God Most High) become God Yahweh (a personal, covenant-making God) intiating a covenant with his people that provided access. “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul.” Leviticus 17:11. Yahweh had made a way for His people to have a personal relationship with Himself through the blood of an atoning sacrifice. Their brokenness and bent toward sin made a daily sweet fragrance of sacrifice an ever-attending need; so, atonement, a perpetual sacrifice for their constant need, was a constant “must have” for the people of God.
There were daily sacrifices, special one-time sacrifices, and then there was the special Day of Atonement. On that one day, a chosen high priest would enter behind the enormous veil that separated the people of God from their holy God to make atonement for the people’s sin. The high priest entered the Holy of Holies robed in priestly garments: bearing the weighty ephod of gold upon his shoulders representing the government of his people; the beautiful ephod, woven in blue linen threads, which covered his heart, bejeweled with precious gems, representing each of the tribes of Israel; the breastplate of judgment, the Urim and the Thummin, lay weighing against his heart representing the verdicts of acceptance or rejection; the sash girding his waist reminding him that he came to serve. The entire costume was both physically and symbolically heavy. The Law prescribed every detail; and access to God demanded a strict adherence to the code, every detail whispering that these were garments of holiness to be worn by the mediator.
Now it was time for the priest to enter behind the thick veil of the Holy of Holies and make atonement for the peoples’ sin. The priest’s heart trembled. The circle of high priest’s garments were adorned with embroidered blue, purple and scarlet pomegranates with little golden bells stitched between, and he purposefully listened for the tinkling bells circling the skirt of his robe as he walked toward the veil. The musical sounds would be the only indication to the rest of the people as they waited for him that God had kept His covenant with them when he sprinkled the blood on the Altar. Let the musical bells sound in worshipful praise; for if the blood did not provide acceptable access to God, the priest would die during the sprinkling of the blood offering.
Walking through the tabernacle courtyard, the old man’s eyes lifted to the flickering flame of the almond blossom cups branching off the hammered, pure gold lampstand. His heart was raised in hope knowing that this constant flame was a visual reminder to assure them of God’s presence among them. God had given them so many reminders. Each part of his day as a priest was filled with reminders of a God who desired to be known and loved by His people.
Born broken in sin, bent toward self-reliance, the priest marveled at the visual, repeated reminders of their need for God’s presence and power. Though ritualistically purified, the old man approached near to the bronze basin of water to cleanse his hands and feet yet once again. He watched as the water splashed from his hands; so many washings, yet he was never holy. God was so very separate from them, and God’s brilliant holiness was once again on the old man’s mind. The chasm between man and God was wider than any earthly canyon; and yet, he mused, God remembered his people and provided a way of access to Himself. Still, he trembled knowing that these offerings for atonement were continual, for none of the people, including himself, could ever stop sinning. The cavernous gulf between God and his people never closed, for their perpetual unrighteousness seperated them from the glorious, shining worthiness of a completely holy God.
He waited as the anointing oil was administered covering his body, again for purification. Again and again, the message was clear: I am holy; you are an unclean people. Everything was designed to remind them of their constant need for God’s presence and power, and their inability to gain it own their own.
The aroma of incense flowed upward filling his nostrils. The incense was also always perpetually burning reminding them of their constant need for intercession with God. The incense of the altar was never to go out; they were visually instructed as to how much the people desperately needed their God.
Constant need. Each step toward the Holy of Holies reminded him of how much he needed God to give him access. Every ritual reminded him of how he could not enjoy God’s presence without God making a way. He was still dirty and would keep being dirty. Only the acceptance of the atoning sacrifice would give him access to God and forgiveness of the transgressions against their holy and just God. Healing of their sins would require the spilling of blood from an unblemished sacrifice. His heart ached. How he longed for complete deliverance from this body of death. The sacrifices were never enough. The work of the priest was never done. No one was ever good enough.
“For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take aways sins. Therefore, when He came into world, He said: ‘Sacrifice and offering You do not desire, but a body You have prepared for Me. In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin you had no pleasure. Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come-in the volume of the book it is written of Me-to do your will, O God.’ Previously saying, ‘Sacrifice and offering, burnt offerings, and offerings for sin You did not desire, nor had pleasure in them’ (which are offered according to the law), then He said, ‘Behold I have come to do Your will, O God.’ He takes away the first that He may establish the second. By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” Hebrews 10:4-10.
The ritualistic symbols and priestly duties were only a foreshadowing of God’s plan for a better mediator. No bleeding bull could take down a proud heart. No precious baby lamb, no matter how wonderfully unblemished, would forever change the bent of a rebellious heart. No the only way to sanctify the heart was to give the owner a new one! The only way to take away the hard rock heart and inscribe righteousness on a living, breathing heart was to give new life. The old covenant was made obsolete, because of the weakness of our flesh. The Law was good and without fault, but we were the messed up ones who could not keep it. A new covenant was offered that would abolish the old one. This time the offering would be a final propitiation for sin. However, it would be very, very different this time. The real body of a man would be offered, an earthly life lived just as we live, tempted, but never sinning. A life lived in complete obedience fulfilling all righteousness 24/7. The unthinkable would take place–this sinless life would be made to be sin—so that a final, forever atonement could be made and all of the holiness could be given to the sinner! There is only one man that could fulfill all of the requirements, and He is the Son of God. So, God, did the unthinkable. Yahweh kept covenant faithfulness and steadfast love with His people by sending His one and only perfect Son to reconcile us back to Himself through a new and living covenant of grace. God gave His Son; the Son gave His life; and the Holy Spirit was given as the seal of this new covenant of redemption. “It is finished!” cries powerfully of this unbelievable reconciliation accomplished by the death of the Son of God.
It is the new covenant of Christ’s own blood that washes me, so that I am no longer defiled. I will not get dirty again. No more washings. When I come before God, I confess my sins. I claim my unworthiness, attesting to the fact that I will never, never be “good enough.” All of my sins, past, current, and those I will still wrongfully do are covered by the atoning blood of Christ. The judgment of God rejected Jesus on the cross blackening the sky, and the Lamb of God took all of my rightful condemnation and bled out; and yet God saw the righteous blood and was pleased to accept atonement in full. We know this because death was not the final word. The thick veil covering the Holy of Holies was dramatically torn from top to bottom opening the way to God’s presence. Death did not hold the Son of God, but He had the authority over death and was raised the third day just as He proclaimed it would be. I am now clothed in the righteousness of Christ, and every time I choose to enter into his Presence and Power, I have the victory of resurrection grace. There is a way across that cavernous gulf between God and his people. Because of Christ’s redeeming work on the cross, nothing can separate His people from His love or from the glorious, shining worthiness of a completely holy God. Jesus is our perfect sacrifice, our perfect mediator, forever interceding on our account; and now there is no need for anything more. “But Christ, because he lives for ever, possessses a priesthood that needs no successor. This means that he can save fully and completely those who approach God through him, for he is always living to interced on their behalf. Here is the High Priest we need. A man who is holy, faultless, unstained, beyond the very reach of sin and lifted to the very Heavens. There is no need for him, like the High Priest we know, to offer up sacrifice, first for our own sins and then for the people’s. He made one sacrifice, once for all, when he offered himself.” Hebrews 7:24-27.
Once for all, the constant need for a clean heart has been satisfied. Our hearts are no longer distanced from what the heart needs most–God’s presence and power. Hang onto this sure hope, “…since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.” (Hebrews 10:19-22). Our hearts are happy and we bring a daily sacrifice of praise to Jesus, for there is no more distance between us.
Our constant need has been satisfied once and forever in Christ’s life.