And he shall take a censer full of burning coals of fire from off the altar before the Lord, and his hands full of sweet incense beaten small, and bring it within the veil: And he shall put the incense upon the fire before the Lord, that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy seat that is upon the testimony, that he die not: And he shall take of the blood of the bullock, and sprinkle it with his finger upon the mercy seat eastward; and before the mercy seat shall he sprinkle of the blood with his finger seven times. Then shall he kill the goat of the sin offering, that is for the people, and bring his blood within the veil, and do with that blood as he did with the blood of the bullock, and sprinkle it upon the mercy seat, and before the mercy seat: And he shall make an atonement for the holy place, because of the uncleanness of the children of Israel, and because of their transgressions in all their sins: and so shall he do for the tabernacle of the congregation, that remaineth among them in the midst of their uncleanness." (Le 16:12-16)
In what may be one of the most significant puns of the Bible, the book of Micah notwithstanding, Moses describes the duties of the High Priest on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). Actually, we should call it "the Day of Covering," for that shows the play on words more clearly. As shown in the passage above, the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) enters the Holy of Holies with a censer and a bowl of blood. Incense is put on the censer to make enough smoke to hide the "mercy seat." Then blood from the bowl is sprikled on that "mercy seat." But there is the pun, because what the King James Version of the Bible translates as mercy seat is a word with the same root as Kippur, kapporeth, or covering. Thus the blood of covering is put on the covering.
This subtle play on words and the ceremony surrounding it may reveal special aspects of our atonement in Christ. The writer of Hebrews seemed to think the same, as he compared the Messiah to the Kohen Gadol and to the sacrifice made for atonement.
The first thing the High Priest did after going into the Holy of Holies (or according to some authorities, before going in) was to put incense on the golden censer he held. Incense was important in the temple area to hide the scent of blood, but this was not the reason this time. Incense was put on the coals at this time, according to the scripture, so that the smoke will hide the kapporeth, that the bearer of the blood not die. Why would he die without the smoke? The shekinah, the glory of God, sat on the mercy seat. No one except Moses was allowed to see God and live. (Judges 6:22-23; Isa 6:5) If the High Priest didn't hide the mercy seat with incense smoke, he would die and the atonement would not take place.
In contrast, our High Priest, Jesus the Messiah, entered the Holy of Holies and opened it so that we may all enter in without fear. Probably this was the symbolism in the "veil" of the temple tearing from top to bottom at the moment of His death. Because he mad atonement forever, we can approach the glory of God without fear.
"Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession. For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need." (He 4:14-16)
Atonement is made at the mercy seat. They both come from a word meaning "covering" as noted above. What is the significance of these words being the same? I think it has to do with the nature of the covering of the ark. What did the mercy seat do? It covered the aron, the ark of the covenant. Why did the box need a cover? It obviously wasn't to keep people out, for after it was built things were added to the contents. It could not have been to keep things in, because the care with which the ark was carried would prevent their falling out. Another option is that a lid was put on it to preserve what was inside. God then "sealed" the ark against casual opening by his presence between the angels of the mercy seat.
What does this have to do with atonement? Atonement is also a covering-a covering of sin. Sin is a blemish on the soul, a laceration of the spirit. If left alone, it will allow all manner of infection in. Soon the soul becomes so contaminated that death is inevitable unless God performs a radical healing, as he does in baptism. To keep the infection from coming back each wound must be covered. This covering is atonement, made to preserve the soul inside.
The third aspect of Yom Kippur, and probably the most obvious, is the blood. Not all sacrifices were blood sacrifices. However, every sacrifice that related to consecreation, forgiveness, or atonement were necessarily blood sacrifices. Without the blood, atonement could not be made. A sacrifice was first made for the High Priest, to atone for his sins. Only after that atonement was made could he make atonement for the sins of the people of Israel. On the other hand, the great Kohen Gadol, the Messiah, did not need to atone for his own sins and used his own blood to atone for ours.
But into the second went the high priest alone once every year, not without blood, which he offered for himself, and for the errors of the people ... which was a figure for the time then present, in which were offered both gifts and sacrifices, that could not make him that did the service perfect, as pertaining to the conscience. But Christ being come an 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 in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us. For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? (He 9:7,9,11-14)
Many is the time I have heard preachers talk about the sins of Israel being "rolled foward" until the sacrifice of the Messiah. This is a phrase not found in the Bible. In fact, it may even be a concept not found there either. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews, in the passage quoted above states emphatically that the blood of bulls and goats was effective for sanctifying and purifying, making all but the conscience perfect. Atonement was effectively made year by year.
Then what is the difference between the atonement under the law and the atonement made by the Messiah? The atonement made by the priests covered the sins of the people. The infection could be held out; God no longer saw them as having sinned. However, their consciences were continually made aware of sin. And there is the difference between Christ and the blood of bulls and goats. Both were effective in the purifying of the flesh, but only Messiah can purify the conscience. Because His sacrifice was made once, there is no reminder of sin. Those dead works can be forgotten, enabling us for greater service to God.