Our Mercy Seat
When I was a boy, there was one particular occasion where I knew I offended my father. He was very silent afterward, and I knew there was going to be a consequence of some kind. But it was his quietness and the fact that I knew I offended him that bothered me the most, and more than anything else I longed for his forgiveness.
The first words from Jesus on the cross were, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do" (Luke 23:34). Of all the things Jesus said from the cross, it's noteworthy that the first sentence was a declaration or a plea for forgiveness. Why? I think it's simple: Jesus knew our greatest need was forgiveness, so that topped His list.
This need, of course, goes back to the time of Israel and the festival that was all about a once-a-year forgiveness—the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. Kippur, or kaphar, means to cover. Think about that: in Old Testament times, sins were never completely removed; they were simply covered over. Though animals were sacrificed every year, as the writer of Hebrews said, "It is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins" (10:4).
Several different animals were used for sacrifice and atonement on the day of Yom Kippur, their blood sprinkled by the high priest on the mercy seat of the ark of the covenant in the tabernacle (see Leviticus 16). The mercy seat was the slab of gold on top of the ark over which spread two golden angels. Once a year, the high priest entered the Holy of Holies and approached the mercy seat, the place where God was said to dwell, and sprinkled blood on it.
Do you remember what was inside the ark? Scripture says there was a golden pot of manna, Aaron's rod that blossomed, and a copy of the Ten Commandments—which the children of Israel had broken. In short, it was a testimony of their sin. It was a judgment seat, really, with the two angels looking down on the emblems of their failure.
But on the Day of Atonement, on Yom Kippur, a transformation took place: it went from being a judgment seat to being a mercy seat. It was a place where God would be merciful, because the lid that covered the broken testimony of their failure was in turn covered by the blood of the animals that had been shed.
Fast forward to the New Testament. "In this is love," says 1 John 4:10, "not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins." The word propitiation is used a total of four times in the New Testament, and it's a tough word to translate. The Greek word is hilasmos, and it means something that is efficacious for atonement; some translations render it atoning sacrifice. It's related to the Greek noun hilastérion, which, when literally translated, means mercy seat.
So when the Bible says that Jesus Christ is the propitiation for sins, it's saying He is literally our mercy seat—the One who transforms a place of judgment into a place of mercy because of His blood.
God made the forgiveness of sins a reality through the blood of Jesus. When Jesus came, He did what the Law and all of its rituals could never do—that is, actually remove the stain of sin from individuals who believe in Him.
As important as the blood of the animals were in Old Testament times, only the blood of Jesus can cleanse a man or a woman from all sin. He is our hilastérion, our mercy seat, our place of atonement, our propitiation; it's to that promise we cling, and in that promise we hope.