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The Book of Hebrews' Interpretation of the Christ Event: “The Yom Kipper of God”

The book of Hebrews has one theme — the Person and work of Jesus Christ. The whole presentation is wonderfully objective. The author does talk about going on to perfection (He b. 6:1), but not in the way of mystic pietists who make the whole subject of perfection internal and experiential. Aside from a few practical exhortations, the writer of Hebrews does not dwell on the subjective experience of the believer. He focuses our attention on that work of eternal efficacy which has been done by an infinite Person.

The apostles had a Spirit-filled experience. It was an experience of being completely caught up in the wonder and grandeur of the Christ event. It seemed that they could talk of nothing else. It was absolutely their only message. What they wrote was inspired by the Holy Spirit. If we want to know what the Spirit inspired these men to talk about, the book of Hebrews is a prime example. This Spirit-breathed book is another explication of the Christ event. Here the Spirit glorifies Christ as He takes the marvelous things of the gospel of Christ and shows them unto us (see John 16:13-15). This is the Pentecostal experience we need to dwell on today. It is as different from experience-centered Pentecostalism as heaven is from earth.

Hebrews does have a very distinctive way of viewing the Christ event. It is seen as the fulfillment of the ritual law. The Jews had a magnificent religious ritual centered in the temple service. They were very proud of it, not the least reason being that God Himself had given it to them. Hebrews shows that the Person and work of Jesus Christ is the reality of the entire sacrificial system. For this reason the writer does not use words and expressions reminiscent of the law court, but of the sanctuary and its services of worship. Hence there is the prominence of such words as purge, purify, cleanse, sanctify, consecrate and perfect. Like all the great expositions of the New Testament, Hebrews drives us back into the Old Testament to obtain the key to understanding the distinctive way in which it sets forth the meaning of the Christ event.

The Old Covenant and the Tabernacle Ritual

The writer to the Hebrews links two things of the Old Testament in inseparable connection —

(1) the covenant which God made with Israel at Sinai and

(2) the tabernacle ritual.

We must therefore go back to the Old Testament to find out what this covenant was and how it was related to the tabernacle of Moses.

Old Testament scholars generally agree that the covenant is fundamental to an understanding of the Old Testament. The word covenant (Hebrew, berith) occurs over 250 times in the Old Testament, with more than 150 of these occurrences referring to the covenant which God made with Israel at Sinai. The word is always singular. God often refers to it simply as "My covenant." The word itself means a bond, a compact, an agreement, a treaty, a solemn pledge. Covenants between individuals were commonly formed by both the Hebrews and their neighbors in the ancient world. These were called parity covenants, or covenants between equals. Then there was another type of covenant called a suzerainty covenant. This was a treaty between a king and His subjects. G.E. Mendenhall,1 K. Baltger2 and others have shown that the Sinai covenant fomulary reflects the Hittite suzerainty treaties. At Sinai, Israel was incorporated as a nation under God. He was their King, pledged to give them succor and protection. They were His subjects, pledged to love and loyal obedience.

The Sinaitic covenant may also be compared to the marriage covenant. In solemn pledge God became the Husband of Israel (Jer. 31:32). It was a covenant which demanded chesed (covenant loyalty, faithfulness) on the part of both parties. Throughout their subsequent history, God is constantly presented as chesed — faithful and loyal — to His sinful and unworthy people. On the other hand, Israel was constantly unfaithful; she was not chesed. The prophets represented the nation as guilty of marital infidelity.

The words of this Old Testament covenant are "the Ten Commandments" (Ex. 34; Deut. 4:13). The form of the Decalogue resembles the form of the suzerainty treaty.

First, there is the very characteristic preamble: "I am the Lord thy God . . . . "

Second, in classical treaty form there follows the historical prologue: " . . . which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage." Ex. 20:2.

Third, the main element in the covenant is "the words of the covenant," "the Ten Commandments," or "the testimony [Hebrew, eduth]." These are the oath-bound stipulations which constitute the covenant order of life.

Fourth, the covenant blessings and cursings are interspersed among the stipulations (Ex. 20:6, 7, 12).

Fifth, the covenant also contains the King's seal. Meredith Kline points out that "the Sabbath sign presented in the midst of the ten words [is] the equivalent of the suzerain's dynastic seal." — Meredith G. Kline, The Treaty of the Great King (Eerdmans), p.18.

Finally, the covenant was deposited in the sacred ark and kept in the most holy place of the tabernacle. Consequently, the Ten Commandments are called "the words of the covenant." The tables of stone on which they were written are called the "tables of the testimony [eduth]," the ark is "the ark of the covenant," and the tabernacle itself, where the ark was located, is called "the tabernacle of the testimony" (see Ex. 31:18; 32:15; 34:29; Num. 10:33; Ex. 38:21).

It is a grave mistake to suppose that God actually imposed a legalistic covenant of works upon His people. This is clearly contrary to the Old Testament record. The giving of the Ten Commandments was preceded by the great deliverance from Egypt. This was an Old Testament act of salvation by grace alone, surely! The people were not asked to keep the Ten Commandments as a method or way of redemption, but as a result of redemption (Ex. 20:2). Israel was not chosen as God's elect people because she kept the law, but in order that she might keep the law. The commandments were presented as the way of life for a people already redeemed. They pointed out how Israel was to show her gratitude for salvation in concrete acts of loving devotion. Furthermore, Deuteronomy makes it quite clear that Israel would not be given the promised land for her righteousness, but solely because of God's covenant faithfulness (Deut. 9:6).

This covenant arrangement had "ordinances of divine service, and a worldly sanctuary." Heb. 9:1. We must see the relationship between the tabernacle ritual and the covenant. Israel could remain in covenant relationship with God only as she continued to live in harmony with the stipulations of the covenant — the testimony, or eduth. The people had pledged themselves to do this (Ex. 19:5-8), but God knew that it was not in them to do it (Deut. 5:29). While He would not tolerate open and flagrant rebellion (which would break the covenant), He would make provision for sins of human weakness. By the blood sacrifice of animals (substitution) and by the mediation of a high priest (representation), He would show Israel how they could continue to meet the claims of His Ten Commandment law and thereby continue to live in covenant fellowship with Him. The sins of Israel would be imputed to the sanctuary so that God could not behold iniquity in Jacob (Num. 23:21).

In the daily ritual the priests offered God's sacrifice at the brazen altar and ministered in the first apartment of the tabernacle. This was a ritual of continual forgiveness. The high point of the service was the tenth day of the seventh month, known as the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur. While the congregation gathered at the tabernacle to afflict their souls in remembrance of sin, the high priest did three things for Israel. (1) He offered the yearly sacrifice (Lev. 16:9). (2) He took the blood within the holy of holies and sprinkled it upon the lid of the ark (Hebrew, kapporeth; Greek, hilasterion; Luther's translation, mercy seat).3 This fully satisfied the stipulations of the covenant and was therefore called "an atonement." It also cleansed the sanctuary from the defilement of Israel's sins (Lev. 16:15-19). (3) In the high priest, Israel had unrestricted access into the presence of God, which presence was manifested in the holy Shekinah above the mercy seat (Lev. 16:30).

This ritual had no merit in itself, but it did illustrate the principles of salvation by substitution, representation and imputation. It pointed away to the coming redemption on God's great day. Especially did Yom Kippur express Israel's eschatological hope. It was a yearly reminder of the great day of judgment, when God would "finish the transgression, make an end of sins, . . . make reconciliation for iniquity, and . . . bring in everlasting righteousness." Dan. 9:24 (cf. Lev. 16:16, 21).

In the history of the chosen people the time came when they had become utterly unfaithful to the covenant. It was not a case of "sins of ignorance," but as the prophets called it, adultery and harlotry. Finally the great divorce took place. The favored wife was stripped of her God-given adornments, the sanctuary was razed to the ground, and the people were cast out as exiles.

The Promise of a New Era

Yet the Babylonian rule was not "a full end." Jer. 4:27. In great wrath God forsook His people, but the prophets spoke of a new beginning. Isaiah declared that there would be a glorious new exodus. Jeremiah spoke of the restoration in terms of a "new covenant." Ezekiel promised a new Davidic King and a new temple of glorious dimensions.

As we pointed out earlier, these grand hopes, so often written in terms suggesting a grand eschatological event, did not fully materialize at the end of the seventy years in Babylon. True, there was a restoration of very humble proportions to Palestine. But there was no new Davidic king. The restored temple was so inferior to the former one that many wept when its foundation was laid. Besides, there was no ark of the holy covenant in the new temple. The Jews would have to wait for the coming of God's Messiah for the complete fulfillment of all those promises.

In the fullness of time Messiah arrived to "confirm the covenant" by His own blood. Standing at the transition point between the old era and the new, we hear Jesus declaring, "This [cup] is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins." Matt. 26:28. To Jews steeped in Old Testament history and the hope of Old Testament prophets, what could this mean but that the hour had finally arrived for the new exodus, the deliverance of all deliverances? The words "new covenant" surely signify the inauguration of the new kingdom, the new temple and the new Israel.

According to the prophecy of Daniel, Messiah would "cause the sacrifice and the oblation to cease" — that is, put an end to the whole Jewish sacrificial system (Dan. 9:27). This He accomplished by being "cut off, but not for Himself." Dan. 9:26. At the very moment of His death on the cross, "the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom." Mark 15:38. This signified that the entire ritual law had come to an end, having met its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. We are reminded of the words of Jesus that not a jot or tittle could pass from the law "till all be fulfilled." Matt. 5:18. Since there are things which have passed from the law (such as the ritual service), it is clear that every part of the tabernacle ritual, including those parts that especially pointed to eschatological events, has met its fulfillment in Jesus Christ.

Now the message of Hebrews can come into focus. The writer reasons that the words "new covenant" imply a new sanctuary and a new priesthood (Heb. 9). The earthly sanctuary, being associated with the old covenant, is made obsolete by the new and better arrangement. The old order is not lampooned, for we must not forget that it was ordained as a "divine service." Heb. 9:1. St. Paul could even call the old covenant "glorious." But it is "done away" by that which does "exceed in glory." (2 Cor. 3:7-11). The writer to the Hebrews repeatedly calls the new covenant "better" (Heb. 7:19,22; 8:6; 9:23; 11:16, 35, 40; 12:24). The earthly service with its animal sacrifices was only "a shadow of good things to come." Heb. 10:1. The blood of animals could never take away sin or perfect the worshipers (Heb. 10:1-4). It was a mere "pattern" or "figure" of the heavenly sanctuary, where Jesus Christ ministers for us (Heb. 9:23, 24). In the Christ event the reality has come. There is no need to continue acting out the shadow.

The "new covenant" does not mean a new religion or a new ethic. This becomes clear when we look at Jeremiah's prophecy of the new covenant (see Jer. 31:31-34). The moral constitution — the divine stipulations (eduth) — is the same. The new covenant does not promise a new ethic, but a new heart (Jer. 31:33; Heb. 8:10). The temple in which Jesus is the Mediator is said to be in heaven (Heb. 8:1,2). The Revelator declares, "Then God's temple in heaven was laid open, and within the temple was seen the ark of His covenant." Rev. 11:19, NEB. Again he says, ..... the temple of the tabernacle of the testimony [the eduth, or Ten Commandments] in heaven was opened." Rev. 15:5. While the new covenant means a new temple and a new priesthood, it does not mean a change in the moral order. The Ten Commandments are still there in the new covenant temple. The constitution, therefore, is the same, but it is under a new and better administration. Let us therefore be careful to distinguish between those things which change and those things which never change.

The New and Living Way

The book of Hebrews presents Christ as the new High Priest of the new and better covenant. The first seven chapters of the book spell out His qualifications for being "such an High Priest." Heb. 8:1. He is better than angels because He is divine (Heb. 1). As the new Head, the new Adam of the race, He is made like us in every respect essential to human nature (Heb. 2). He is greater than Moses or Joshua and qualified to lead us into God's true rest (Heb. 3, 4). He is greater than the Aaronic priests, who died, because, as a Priest after the order of Melchesidec, He has the power of an endless life (Heb. 5, 6, 7). Since the Person of our High Priest is infinitely better than the priesthood of the old order, His work is also infinitely better.

The High Priest must do three things:

    1. Offer sacrifice.

    2. Make an atonement.

    3. Provide access to God's presence.

1. Sacrifice. If Christ is High Priest, He must offer sacrifice. The apostle declares:

    For such an High Priest became us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and made higher than the heavens; who needeth not daily, as those high priests, to offer up sacrifice, first for His own sins, and then for the people's: for this He did once, when He offered up Himself. — Heb. 7:26, 27.

    For every high priest is ordained to offer gifts and sacrifices: wherefore it is of necessity that this Man have somewhat also to offer. — Heb. 8:3.

    nor yet that He should offer Himself often, as the high priest entereth into the holy place every year with blood of others; for then must He often have suffered since the foundation of the world: but now once in the end of the world hath He appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. — Heb. 9:25, 26.

    For the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect. For then would they not have ceased to be offered? because that the worshippers once purged should have had no more conscience of sins. But in those sacrifices there is a remembrance again made of sins every year. For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins. . . . And every priest standeth daily ministering and offering oftentimes the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins: but this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God; from henceforth expecting till His enemies be made His footstool. For by one offering He hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified. — Heb. 10:1-14.

The apostle does not merely contrast Christ's self-offering with the offerings of the daily ritual, but with the offering made by the high priest on the Day of Atonement. On that day Aaron laid aside his gorgeous high-priestly robes and offered the Day of Atonement sacrifice in the plain linen robe of the common priest. So Christ laid aside His royal robes, was made like unto His brethren, and offered His day of atonement sacrifice, Himself the priest, Himself the victim. Unlike the Levitical offerings, this offering never has to be repeated. Christ's blood has eternal efficacy for all who believe in its merits.

2. Atonement. When the high priest of the tabernacle ritual had offered the yearly (Day of Atonement) sacrifice, He took the blood within the holy of holies and sprinkled it upon the mercy seat, beneath which were the words of the covenant that promised life to all who satisfied its claims. This action of the high priest typically satisfied the demands of the law. Hence it was called "the atonement" (see Lev. 16).

The high priest of the old order went often into the sanctuary with the blood of bulls and goats to make an atonement, to purge and purify the people, and secure their acceptance before God. But Christ by His own blood purged the sins of His people (Heb. 1:3), put them away (Heb. 9:26), perfected His people forever (Heb. 10:14), and secured their eternal release (Heb. 9:12). This He did once, before He entered God's presence and sat down at His right hand (Heb. 1:3; 9:12, 24). In this respect the Melchesidec priesthood is not a parallel of the old order, but a confrast (see Heb. 7:27; 9:25).4

This means that the cross fulfilled the type of the high priest's sprinkling the blood on the mercy seat on the Day of Atonement. This was not done by His entering into God's presence as Aaron entered the holy of holies, but rather by the offering of Himself once and for all time upon the cross. The message of Hebrews is this: What the high priest could not do, even on the Day of Atonement, Christ has done. Purification, purging, perfecting — whatever expressions might be used to describe the high-priestly act of making atonement — all this was accomplished in the Christ event.

"Wherefore in all things it behoved Him to be made like unto His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people." Heb. 2:17. This act of reconciliation was accomplished in the death of Christ. Yet the word translated "reconciliation" is hilaskesthai, meaning "to make propitiation." It is the verb form of hilasterion, which is the word the Septuagint uses to translate kipporeth, the lid of the sacred ark. The word translated "mercy seat" in Hebrews 9:5 is hilasterion. In Romans 3:25 Paul says that Christ was set forth on the cross to be a hilasterion. That is to say that by His death the stipulations of the covenant were fully satisfied. Christ Himself became our Mercy Seat. What does all this mean? It means that Calvary was the fulfillment of Yom Kippur.

At this point we must notice an important connection between St. Paul's interpretation of the Christ event and its interpretation given in the book of Hebrews. In Romans, Calvary is presented as the revelation of God's judgment day. In Hebrews it is seen as Yom Kippur. This proves beyond all question that the Jewish Day of Atonement was a true type of the eschatological day of judgment and that the Jews were quite right in regarding it as such (see The Jewish Encyclopedia, Vol.2, pp.280-285). The tragedy lay in their failure to see its fulfillment in the Christ event.

3. Access to God's Presence. It was only on the Day of Atonement that Israel, in the person of their high priest, could enter into God's presence. But the blood of Christ gives us "boldness to enter" into the real sanctuary "by a new and living way, which He hath consecrated for us, through the veil . . . " Heb. 10:19, 20. No longer must we await the coming of the high priest to find direct access to God's presence. The great sacrifice has been made. The veil has been rent by Christ's death. The way into the holiest has been laid open. Christ has thrown open every compartment of the temple, that every believing soul may have free access to God. Through Christ the hidden glory of the holy of holies stands revealed. The mercy seat, upon which rested the glory of God in the holy of holies, is open to all. By the efficacy of this living Mercy Seat, every true believer has fellowship with God. This is the glorious benefit of the covenant whose oath-bound stipulations have been met on our behalf by the life and death of Jesus Christ. He is both the Fulfiller and the Executor of the covenant. Believers are the beneficiaries. Faith in Jesus gives the ultimate blessing of full and free access to God's presence, as it is written, " . . in Thy presence is fulness of joy; at Thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore. Ps. 16:11.



1 G.E. Mendenhall, Law and Covenant in Israel, the Ancient Near East (Pittsburgh: The Biblical Colloquium, 1955).

2 K. Baltger, The Covenant Formulary in Old Testament, Senersh and Early Christian Writings, tr. David E. Green (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971).

3 The original word means something like place of atonement. propitiation or expiation.

4 This should be compared with Paul's treatment of the two Adams in Romans 5:15, 16: "But not as the offense, so is the free gift . . . not as it was by one that sinned, so is the gift . . . . " Christ transcends the type in such a way that the truth must be presented in terms of contrast rather than exact parallel.