he Day of Atonement
Hebrews 9:7 says,
“Only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance” (Heb 9:7).
Here, the author talks about what high priests did on the Day of Atonement. It was the day for the high priest to go into the Most Holy Place to make atonement for all the Israelites’ sins.
The Most Holy Place was separated from the rest of the tabernacle by a curtain, and no one could enter it. Even priests appointed to serve at the tabernacle could only enter the first room, the Holy Place. This shows the deep separation between God and people because of sin.
Only one person was allowed to go into the Most Holy Place—the high priest. The high priest could enter the Most Holy Place only one day a year on the day called the Day of Atonement.
We can find specific rules for the Day of Atonement in Leviticus chapter 16.
On that day, the high priest would enter the Most Holy Place three times: first with incense smoke, second with bull’s blood, and third with goat’s blood.
1) Incense Smoke
Lev 16:11-13 says,
“Aaron shall bring the bull for his own sin offering to make atonement for himself and his household, and he is to slaughter the bull for his own sin offering. He is to take a censer full of burning coals from the altar before the Lord and two handfuls of finely ground fragrant incense and take them behind the curtain. He is to put the incense on the fire before the Lord, and the smoke of the incense will conceal the atonement cover above the tablets of the covenant law, so that he will not die.” (Lev 16:11-13)
Before entering the Most Holy Place, Aaron, the first high priest, had to kill a young bull to make atonement for his own sins first. After that, he entered the Most Holy Place with burning coals and fragrant incense, and he put the incense on the fire to make smoke until the smoke concealed the atonement cover.
The atonement cover had to be covered by the smoke because God sat on the mercy seat above the ark of the covenant, and if sinners saw God, they would have died right away because of their sins.
2) Bull’s blood
After that the high priest came out and entered the Most Holy Place for the second time with bull’s blood. Lev 16:14 said,
“He is to take some of the bull’s blood and with his finger sprinkle it on the front of the atonement cover; then he shall sprinkle some of it with his finger seven times before the atonement cover” (Lv 16:14)
He had to take the blood of the bull he killed and sprinkle it on the atonement cover with his finger seven times to consecrate it. Then, he came out of the room again.
3) Goat's blood
Lastly, he killed a goat and entered the Most Holy Place for the third time with its blood to make atonement for all of the Israelites’ sins. Lev 16:15-16 says,
“He shall then slaughter the goat for the sin offering for the people and take its blood behind the curtain and do with it as he did with the bull’s blood: He shall sprinkle it on the atonement cover and in front of it. In this way he will make atonement for the Most Holy Place because of the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites, whatever their sins have been.” (Lv 16:15-16)
This time, the high priest went into the Most Holy Place and sprinkled the blood of a goat on the atonement cover. This was the most important part because all the Israelites’ sins, uncleanness, and rebellion were forgiven this way.
This is what high priests did on the Day of Atonement. To offer sacrifices on that day was their most important job because all the Israelites’ sins were forgiven through these rituals.
God said to Moses,
“On this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the Lord, you will be clean from all your sins.” (Lev 16:30)
But even though all the Israelites’ sins were forgiven on the Day of Atonement, it had to be repeated every year. God continued,
“Atonement is to be made once a year for all the sins of the Israelites.” (Lv 16:34)
The fact that the Day of Atonement had to be kept and high priests had to offer the blood of young bulls and goats annually shows that the sacrifices weren’t perfect.
After atonement was made and the Israelites’ sins were cleansed, they committed sins again, so atonement had to be made again the next year because it was only good for the sins that had been committed before the sacrifices were offered.
The Superiority of Jesus’ Sacrifice
That’s what the author of Hebrews points out in Hebrews chapter 10. Verses 1-4 say,
“The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming - not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. Otherwise, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins. It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” (Heb 10:1-4)
Here, the law refers to the law of the Day of Atonement that we just talked about. Even though it was the most important day for the Israelites, it also just served as ‘a shadow’ of the true, perfect, and eternal sacrifice to come.
Even though many high priests offered countless bulls and goats every year in the history of Israel, it could never perfectly cleanse the Israelites’ sins. Nevertheless, they offered the same sacrifices year after year because that was the only way for their sins to be forgiven even though it was impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
Here, the author intentionally downgrades the importance of the Day of Atonement not because it wasn’t really important, but because a much better and more perfect sacrifice, which wasn’t just a shadow, but a reality, was offered by Jesus Christ.
The Day of Atonement was the best way God provided to forgive his people in the past, but it still just served as a shadow and copy of what would be made in the future by Jesus Christ. So, no matter how zealously the Israelites studied and kept the law, it meant nothing if they didn’t know Jesus Christ, the eternal high priest and perfect sacrifice.
There were fundamental flaws in animal sacrifices. First, the animals used for sacrifice didn’t share the same human nature, so their blood couldn’t perfectly cleanse human beings from within their hearts. They simply weren’t valuable enough to make atonement for people.
Second, the animals didn’t have any sense or discretion. They never willingly decided to be killed for people’s sins. They were just chosen by people. Since they didn’t voluntarily choose to offer themselves, but were killed by force regardless of their wills, the effect of their sacrifice couldn’t be perfect.
That’s the reason Jesus had to come to the world to give us perfect redemption once for all.
Heb 10:5 says,
“Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said: “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me… Here I am, I have come to do your will, my God” (Heb 10:5).
God didn’t desire the sacrifices and offerings of the past because of their flaws and imperfection. So, God prepared a body for his son. This refers to the incarnation of Jesus. The word through which all things were created “became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” (Jn 1:14)
God’s will was for Jesus to become a human being with a physical body so that he could offer the perfect sacrifice for us.
And, according to God’s will, Jesus came to the world to “set aside the first to establish the second” (Heb 10:9). Here, the first refers to the old laws about atonement and the second refers to Jesus’ sacrifice that was about to come.
I talked about two reasons why the sacrifices of bulls and goats were imperfect. First, they didn’t share the same nature as humans. And, second, they didn’t have the ability to willingly offer themselves for people’s sins.
But Jesus had both. Even though he was perfectly God, he was also perfectly human like us at the same time. And, we also know that Jesus willingly laid down his life for us out of his unconditional and everlasting love that we can’t even imagine. Only he can perfectly cleanse us, sanctify us, and perfect us.
Hebrews 10:11-12 says,
“Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God...” (Heb 10:11-12)
Here, the author compares all the past sacrifices with Jesus’ sacrifice once again. They had to offer the same sacrifices again and again because their sacrifices could only cleanse their sins temporarily. But this priest, Jesus, offered one sacrifice which will be in effect for all time.
As I said before, the fact that priests should ‘stand’ and perform their duties shows that their sacrifices weren’t perfect and thus their duties needed to be done continually. By contrast, Jesus offered the perfect sacrifice and ‘sat down’ at the right hand of God, which implies that Jesus’ sacrifice was so perfect and eternal that it didn’t have to be offered again.
The old sacrifices only atoned for sins that had been committed in the past, but Jesus’ sacrifice was once for all, which means that it was so perfect that it could perfectly atone for all sins no matter when they are committed.
But, the effect of Jesus’ sacrifice doesn’t end there. Hebrews 10:10 and 14 say,
“And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all… For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (Heb 10:10, 14)
Here, that will refers to God’s will to send his Son on earth in human form and have him die on the cross to obtain eternal redemption for our sins. And, the author says that by God’s will, we were made holy through Jesus’ sacrifice, which the animal sacrifices could never achieve.
One of the problems with animal sacrifices was that even though they could cleanse ‘outward’ sins, they couldn’t perfectly take away the root of sin deeply planted in our hearts. But Jesus’ sacrifice was perfect enough to take away not only our outward sins but also our internal sins hidden in our minds and souls.
Therefore, Jesus’ sacrifice can make us perfect and holy because it has the power to cleanse us and renew us from within the deepest parts of our hearts. To be cleansed and to be holy are related, yet they are different.
God’s purpose wasn’t only to purify us and save us from our sins. His ultimate plan that he wanted to achieve through the death of his only Son was for us to be holy and complete in him.
All the other priests couldn’t achieve this. Jesus is the only way to perfect redemption and holiness. There’s no other name given to mankind by which we can be saved. Only Jesus is the way, the truth and the life through which we can truly have access to our heavenly Father and become his holy children.
In this world, there are many things that tempt us, make us worry, and keep us from going to Jesus. There are things that we think might save us—power, fame, education, money and more. But we have to remember that all the things we see and feel in this world will pass away just as the leaves fall and the flowers wither so that we can fix our eyes on eternal things in Jesus Christ.