During the Old Covenant, once each year the human high priest was required on the Day of Atonement to make a sacrifice for the place of meeting, the high priest himself, and the sins of the people. That event, along with other required sacrifices during the year were necessary to keep the people in God’s grace for the year. The details of these activities can be found in the books of Leviticus and Numbers.
1. “On the tenth day of this seventh month you shall have a holy convocation. You shall afflict your souls; you shall not do any work. You shall present a burnt offering to the Lord as a sweet aroma: one youg bull, one ram, and seven lambs in their first year. Be sure they are without blemish” (Numbers 29:7, 8).
This event took place once each year but it was a stressful time for the participants as God’s rules for the duties of the high priest were very exacting and had to be precisely following or there were serious consequences.
2. When they go into the tent of meeting, or when they come near the altar to minister, to burn an offering by fire to the Lord, they shall wash with water, lest they die. They shall wash their hands and their feet, lest they die: it shall be a statute for ever to them, even to him and to his descendants throughout their generations” (Exodus 30:20, 21, RSV).
3. “And the Lord said to Moses, Tell Aaron your brother not to come at all times into the holy place within the veil, before the mercy seat which is upon the ark, lest he die; for I will appear in the cloud upon the mercy seat” (Leviticus 16:2, RSV).
As you can see from the passages above there were serious consequences for the priests of Israel not obeying God’s instructions! In addition:
4. There shall be no man in the tent of meeting when he (Aaron) enters to make atonement in the holy place until he comes out and has made atonement for himself and for his house and for the assembly of Israel” (Leviticus 16:17, RSV).
From passage #4 above we find that when the high priest entered the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement there would not be another priest within the tabernacle! The question arises, How would everyone know if the high priest had performed his responsibilities satisfactorily? The answer is when the high priest exited the tabernacle and was still alive!
I have been using some terms that many of readers would not be familiar with unless you have studied the Mosaic Tabernacle or the Jerusalem Temples. Let’s take a few minutes to describe these structures.
God originally gave Moses instructions in Exodus Chapters 25,26, and 27 to build a portable temple made of a tent like structure that Israel moved along with them when they were in their travels. Later, a temple made of stones, mortar, expensive wood and even some gold was fashioned in the city of Jerusalem. These physical temples (made with the hands of the Israelites) were the place that God chose to be among and to meet with his people the Israelites. In particular God would appear in a cloud that was over the mercy seat of the ark of the covenant. See the floor plan below.
The Mosaic Tabernacle consisted of three “rooms” or compartments, or spaces: the outer court, the holy place and the holy of holies. There was a heavy embroidered veil that separated the space between the holy place and the holy of holies. In addition there were various articles of “furniture” that were assigned by God to be in certain locations in the tabernacle.
The holy of holies was the innermost chamber in the tabernacle. This was a room so sacred that only one person, the high priest, could enter it, and then only one day of the year, the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur. Only one object was in that room called the ark of the covenant.
On the Day of Atonement, the high priest would meticulously bathe and put on special linen garments. He entered the inner sanctuary with a censer that burned with incense. The high priest would then sprinkle the blood of a sacrificed bull and goat to cover over the people’s sins.
The above sequence of events repeated itself for the entire span of the Old Covenant. But God also had plans for doing away with the mere “covering” of sins during the Old Covenant which was an initial necessity until Jesus came to Earth physically and died for all sin, past, present and future. Sin was no longer just covered beyond the Old Covenant, but was completely taken away which is an attribute of the New Covenant.
When Christ began His earthly ministry circa AD 30 He began to bring in the New Covenant and to phase out the Old Covenant as He fulfilled the requirements for those who had not been able to keep the various laws and requirements of the Old Covenant. That all came to an end when He came back (spiritually) circa AD 70. After His crucifixion, resurrection, and ascencion into the heavenly Holy of Holies with His blood, He had to return otherwise He would not have been qualified to be our High Priest today! This is a very big problem for those Christians who are still waiting today for a physical return of Christ. There is no assurance that His blood which He took into the heavenly Holy of Holies was acceptable to the Father without Him coming out of the Holy of Holies just as the physical Old Covenant high priest had to do on the annual Day of Atonement. If Christ has not returned to Earth and be in our presence here and now, the salvation of everyone would be in serious jeopardy.
The Scriptures make it very clear tha Jesus is the High Priest for all who believe in Him.
5. “Therefore he (Christ) had to be made like his brethren in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make expiation for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17, RSV).
6. “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:14, 15, RSV).
7. “….Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 6:20, RSV).
8. “For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, unstained, separated from sinners, exalted above the heavens” (Hebrews 7:26, RSV).