What was the special purpose and design of the great atonement? The view of writers in general is that the great sacrifice, as compared with the acts of expiation which from time to time were made through the year, was a more perfect sacrifice, so much so that by it the mass of sins for which the daily acts of expiations had but imperfectly satisfied was blotted out. Now this view, as was previously said, will not do. It is thoroughly Jewish. The Jews, it was pointed out, have such a saying among them, “That on the day of expiation all Israel was made as righteous as in the day wherein man was first created.”
The right view is that the great atonement was instituted for the purpose of accentuating the truths set forth by the common sacrifices by blood, in particular by the sin-offering. In support of this statement, we direct attention to the following.
The great sacrifice was, to be sure, as well as the common sin offering symbolical-typical. The victims for both sacrifices belonged to the class of domesticated animals. As to the action with the blood, on ordinary occasions, when the sin-offering had respect to a single individual, a ruler, or a private member of the congregation, the shed blood was poured round about the altar and some of it sprinkled upon the horns of the altar—its prominent points of sacredness. If the offering was for the sin of the high priest, or of the community, in addition to these actions in the outer court, the blood was carried into the sanctuary and sprinkled by the priest seven times before the vail of the holiest place and upon the horns of the altar of incense. But (as already has been explained in former articles) on the great day of atonement, the high priest, clad in the insignia of his office and freshly bathed, went with the blood of his own and the people’s sin offering in the inner room of the sanctuary—the holiest place—where he sprinkled with it the mercy seat and the space in front of it.
There was then this variant action with the blood. As a result of each distinct action, that is, as sprinkled upon the horns of either of the altars (the altar of the burnt offering or the altar of incense) or as sprinkled upon the mercy-seat of the ark, the blood was in Jehovah’s presence before His face. Now its presence there, on the horns of the altar of the burnt offering (the precinct of this altar, which stood in the outer court, was, as well as the precinct of the ark, the meeting place between Jehovah and His people) or on the mercy seat of the ark, bespoke its acceptance by the Lord and declared that by its shedding sin had been expiated (symbolically). But of all these transactions, the one that spoke loudest was that of sprinkling the blood on the mercy seat of the ark; for, as over this seat or lid the cloud hovered, it was especially upon this lid that the blood was before the very face and under the very eye of God, as a blood accepted by Him as a covering for the sins of His people. How, therefore, its presence in the holiest place witnessed for the truth that it was with Jehovah that the offending nation had to do; that when sin was committed, it was His law that was being transgressed and His majesty that was being offended and that therefore it was also His justice that had to be satisfied and His wrath appeased and this solely by a sacrifice provided, accepted, and approved by Him. How this shed blood, as carried into the very presence chamber of God, witnessed for the truth that sin by it had been expiated—expiated so completely and perfectly that with it sinful man could come into the very presence of God and live.
Let us now compare the action with the flesh of the common sin-offerings with the action of the flesh of the great offering. As has been pointed out in former articles, when the sin-offering was for the common member or for the single ruler in the congregation, the flesh, with the exception of the fat, had to be eaten by the priesthood. When the offering had respect to the sin of the high priest or of the whole congregation, then the flesh was carried without the camp and burnt in a clean place. The action with the flesh of the great offering—an offering comprised, as we have seen, of two goats—was as follows: the flesh of the goat that was killed and whose blood was brought within the vail, was carried without the camp and burnt with fire. Thereupon the live goat was brought, namely, the one on which the lot had fallen to be the scapegoat. Upon his head Aaron laid both his hands, confessed over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon his head, and sent him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness.
Such was the variant actions with the flesh, the bodies, of the victims of these sacrifices. Now all these actions, the one as well as the other, signified the complete removal (symbolically) of guilt and thus the completeness of the reconciliation. But of all these actions, the one that spoke loudest was that of sending into the wilderness the live goat, laden with the expiated guilt of the whole congregation. It was especially by this action that the Lord declared unto His believing people that He cast all their sins into the deep sea.
The action with the fat was the same for both sacrifices. It was placed upon the altar and burnt with fire. In its state of burning it betokened the wholehearted and perfect devotion to God on the part of Christ and His people.
Then, finally, there was the ceremony of the imposition of hands—a ceremony that formed a part of the ritual of all the sacrifices by blood and that betokened, as has fully been explained, the transference of guilt from the offender to his innocent substitute. But in connection with no sacrifice was this ceremony so expressive as when performed in connection with the great atonement; for then it was supplemented by the high priest’s confessing over the victim all the iniquities of the children of Israel and all their transgressions in all their sins.
With these comparisons before our mind, it is plain that the institution of the great sacrifice gave to the truth of the gospel an expression fuller and clearer than that given to it by the other sacrifices. More must be said. On account of the connection of this sacrifice with the holiest place, it could and did serve the Spirit as an instrument for signifying things that could but vaguely be suggested by the others. Into the holiest “went the high priest alone once every year, not without blood, which he offered for himself, and for the errors of the people: the Holy Ghost thus signifying, that the way into the holiest of all was not yet made manifest, while as the first tabernacle was yet standing.” This scripture (Heb. 9:8) is of the greatest importance for our subject. It sets forth the real purpose and design of the great sacrifice in particular and thus of Israel’s entire typical-symbolical service in general.
The sacred writer sets out (in the 9th chapter) with affirming that the first covenant had also ordinances of divine service, and a worldly sanctuary. There was a tabernacle made: the first, wherein was the candlestick, and the table, and the shewbread, which is called the sanctuary (the holy place); and the second, after the second vail, which is called the holiest of all, and wherein was the golden censer, and the ark of the covenant overlaid round about with gold, wherein was the golden pot that had manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tables of the covenant; and over it the cherubims of glory shadowing the mercy seat. The writer declines to speak of these things “particularly,” that is, to enter upon an explanation of their significance. To do so would not be agreeable to his purpose, which is to prove the dignity, pre-eminence, and efficacy of the priesthood and sacrifice of Christ above the sacrifices of the law. So he goes on to say that “when these things were thus ordained the priest went always into the first tabernacle (the holy place) accomplishing the service. But into the second went the high priest alone once every year, not without blood; the Holy Ghost signifying,” so the apostle continues, “that the way into the holiest of all was not yet made manifest, while as the first tabernacle was standing.” Let us examine this scripture.
What the writer intends by the holies is the gracious presence of Jehovah, the especial residence of His glory, thus a blessed presence that can be the abode of such only who partake of God’s nature. In this presence man was brought into being through his being created in God’s image. From this presence he was ejected when he disobeyed the command. But there was slain from the foundation of the world the Lamb. And He, His atoning sacrifice, is the only way out of the abyss of eternal hell to the holiest. Now the apostle does not say that while the first tabernacle was standing this way was not existing. This way did exist then, not actually but virtually so, and this because it was certain that Christ would offer Himself and because, on account of this certainty, the benefit of what He was to do was applied unto them of the old dispensation that did believe. That this way was virtually but not actually existent means that it was then not yet manifest, that is, it was not directly visible but only indirectly, through the medium of symbolical-typical institutions and transactions. Hence what the ancient believers gazed upon is not the way as such but merely its weak and dark shadow. The way as such was not to be seen and this by reason of the circumstance that the Lord Jesus Christ had not yet actually offered Himself unto God, nor made atonement for sin. Thus, whereas Christ is the way, the making manifest of this way was an act on the part of God that consisted in His actually exhibiting Christ Himself in the flesh and His sacrifice of Himself; secondly, in God’s plainly declaring the nature of Christ’s person and His mediation; and finally in His revealing the right and privilege which His believing people have and whereby they are led into His blessed presence,—the right, namely, to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus.
In fine, so long as the first tabernacle (temple) was standing, the way—Christ, His person, nature, and mediation—was not yet manifest. It was thus hidden. It formed the hidden mystery that was destined to be revealed. And the result of its having been revealed is not that it ceased to be a mystery but that it is now plainly manifest.
It was not yet manifest, whilst yet the first tabernacle was standing, had its station, that is, its state and use in the church. That it had until the death of Christ. Then, in the coming of the Holy Ghost, was laid the foundation, whereon a new way of worship was established; and the old was declared abrogated.
In the light of the explanation of the above-cited scripture, the reason of the institution of the great sacrifice is evident. This sacrifice was added to the others that the Holy Ghost might be in the possession of a superior instrument with which to signify that the way of the blood of bulls and of goats was but shadow and that thus the true way was not yet but eventually in God’s own time would be made manifest. As an instrument for setting forth the truth concerning the things which are of the Spirit of God, this sacrifice excelled all the other offerings by blood. And it did so, because with its blood the high priest alone once every year went into the holy place. Being thus superior, the great sacrifice, together with the rites and ceremonies attending it, was especially the offering in connection with which God’s believing people could and did receive witness that they were righteous and, being righteous, had access to God’s gracious presence. This statement is not in conflict with the assertion of the sacred writer that, while the first tabernacle was standing, the Holy Ghost was signifying that the way to the holiest was not yet made manifest. As was said, the writer means not to maintain that the way was not virtually made manifest. It was this; and therefore the ancient believers could and did have approach to God. This is abundantly evident from their prayers and songs of praise. The Old Testament believers were underprivileged only in this respect, that, whereas Christ had not yet been exhibited in the flesh, they had not the way as the direct object of their vision; and that, consequently, having, as they did, conscience of sin, they lacked that confidence toward God which is now the portion of New Testament believers. This way having been made manifest, it is now as plain as can be that believing people have the right to enter the holiest by the blood of Jesus. They should, therefore, now draw near, so reasons the apostle in the following chapter, in full assurance of faith. Let them do so.
The great sacrifice, to return to it, is still serviceable in the church. On account of the action with its blood—with this blood the priest went into the holiest—it formed of all the offerings by blood the clearest and most complete representation of Christ’s mediation. It was therefore with an eye upon this sacrifice and its attending ceremonies that the apostle wrote, “But Christ being come a high priest of good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this building; neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by His own blood he entered into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us” (Heb. 9:11, 12).