In his great song at the start of the gospel of Luke, Zechariah sang of a rising sun which would come from Heaven to shine on those who were living in the shadow of death, in order to guide our feet into the path of peace’ (Luke 1:78-79). This, he declares, would happen because of the tender mercy of our God. Right there in the caught-up-ness of this vision, Zechariah grasped something of the deeper purposes of God regarding human history. In that moment of inspiration without knowing all the details, he glimpsed the amazing fact that the Lord, who had shown such mercy to Israel in the past, was about to demonstrate it again in an entirely new and living way (Heb. 10:20).
Mercy enables us not only to be right with God but to function for Him in the power of the Spirit. We can never praise God enough for it! Mercy is, as it were, His middle name, for all He does springs from it – which is why we His followers, should be so eager to grow in it too. In this edition we are going right back to the earliest times in Hebrew history to see why the theme of the mercy seat remains such a precious one. It is a term you will surely have heard of but which you may not perhaps know very much about.
When they were still in the wilderness, the Lord planted a sign of His everlasting mercy right in the centre of His wandering people – His ‘mercy seat.’ It remains a precious symbol for many today. The Ark of the Covenant, which was placed inside the Holy of Holies, was the most sacred item in both the Tabernacle and the temple. It is a fantastic picture of holiness on the one hand and of intimacy on the other. On it was a lid or covering made from pure gold, on which the presence of the Lord in His glory were said to rest (cf 2 Samuel 6:2). This was the mercy seat.
The Lord declared to Moses, “There I will meet with you; and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim which are upon the Ark of the Testimony, I will speak to you” (Exodus 25:22).
Once a year, on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies and sprinkle the blood of a bull on the mercy seat to cover, or ‘atone’ for the sins of God’s people. The Lord and His recording angels knew exactly where each person had been, and what they had said and done, just as they do to this day. Were that the end of the matter there would have been be no hope for any of them. Mercifully there was still the matter of the Lord’s intervening mercy!
Martin Luther was the first to translate the Hebrew term ‘kapporet’ as ‘Gnadenstuhl – the mercy seat.’ William Tyndale took this up in his English version of the Bible. It literally means ‘seat of grace’, and it comes from a root word meaning not only ‘to cover’ to also but ‘to wipe clean.’ The blood of the atonement is a picture of the blood of Jesus, shed for the guilty and thereby averting the punishment that would otherwise automatically have been poured out on them. In other words, its purpose was to cover and ’protect’ people from the judgement of God.
This kapporet, the mercy seat, was the essential foreshadowing of the cross of Yeshua, where the shedding of Jesus’ blood atoned for the sins of the entire world, effectively making it possible for a holy God to righteously forgive our sin. (cf Gal. 3:13). I love the fact that the word atonement in English describes the condition of at-one-ment! It is because of Jesus’ sacrifice that we can be at one with Him. Praise God for His mercy that covers us!
In Greek, the “mercy seat,” hilasterion, (Heb. 9:5), means “that which makes expiation” or “propitiation.” It therefore carries the idea of the appeasement of sin (cf Ezek. 43:13-15), and reminds us that Jesus has covered our sin by offering His own blood (Rom. 3:24-25 NKJV). We can turn to Him whenever we sin, for He continues to be the propitiation and covering for our sins (1 John 2:1, 4:10), thereby beautifully tying together both Old and New Testament concepts regarding humankind’s supreme need to have our sins covered. By means of His death on the one hand, and our turning to Christ in faith, all our sins are covered. Thank You, thank You Lord Jesus!
Not only that, but through His sacrifice we have unrestricted access to the Father through the Ruach HaKodesh, the Holy Spirit who is the very same Spirit who once dwelt solely on the Mercy Seat in the ancient Temple and in the lives of specifically chosen individuals. (See Exodus 31:1–11 for example, where the Lord God fills craftsmen such as Bezalel with wisdom, knowledge and understanding in order that they may craft the tabernacle.)
By the way, if you weren’t aware of all the Hebrew words for the Holy Spirit in the B’rit Chadashah (The Hebrew New Covenant/Testament) have a quick look at this site.
May we never take this great gift of mercy for granted but constantly thank Him for it. It is no mere abstract quality we are speaking of – God isn’t into abstract concepts: He sends real help to real people. And let’s face it, we need His mercy continuously – both at a personal level and for our wider society.
Don’t let’s ever take this great gift of mercy, bought at such expense, for granted. Worse still, may we never turn our back on it. There are those who do just that and for them, as for them, Jesus’ sacrifice is effectively void and empty (Heb. 10: 26-27).
But we who love Him are coming before the face of Love, who is both in the Holy Place and dwelling within our hearts. Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? (1 Cor. 3:16) “Anyone who loves Me will obey My teaching,” Jesus promised. “My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them” (John 14:23). We are seated with Christ in the heavenly places (Eph. 2:6), in the courts of the Lord where saints and angels surround the throne and the cherubim preside.
The writer to the Hebrews adds to this picture by telling us that we have come to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem; to thousands upon thousands of angels who are worshipping in great joy before the throne of God, together with the Church of the firstborn and with the spirits of the righteous made perfect; to God who is the Judge of all and to Jesus the mediator of this amazing new covenant. May the Lord touch and inspire our hearts and minds afresh as we contemplate this mercy seat (Heb. 12:22-24), which is both a place of intimacy and glory, but also of fire and cleansing.
It is a place that only the humble and contrite can fully avail themselves of. May we hasten to throw off everything that would be a weight around our legs; every trace of doubt and confusion, that would make us hesitate, and every shaft of condemnation so we may come right in to worship Him in the freedom of His presence. (Heb. 12:1). He has a particular craft and calling for each of us, and without it, something precious – vital even – would be missing.