It should not be surprising that God’s greatest secret was hidden away within the Most Holy Place of the Tabernacle. It was the place where only the high priest could enter, and only once a year, on the Day of Atonement.
It was so secret that it wasn’t enough that it was sequestered away from the people. It was in its own room, covering the Ark of the Covenant, and itself covered by the massive wings of two gold cherubim. It couldn’t be seen. So protected was this “object” that its seclusion within its own private room, obscured by the cherubim, was not enough. When the high priest entered during that holiest day, he had to enter with great plumes of smoke generated by his incense censor. This was the one “object” – the only “object” - upon which he could not look without being struck dead (Lev. 16:2):
- "Aaron shall bring the bull for his own sin offering to make atonement for himself and his household, and he is to slaughter the bull for his own sin offering. He is to take a censer full of burning coals from the altar before the Lord and two handfuls of finely ground fragrant incense and take them behind the curtain. He is to put the incense on the fire before the Lord, and the smoke of the incense will conceal the atonement cover [“mercy seat;” KJV] above the Testimony [the Ten Commandments which had been placed in the Ark], so that he will not die.” (Leviticus 16:11-13)
This provokes many questions. Why should the atonement cover – the mercy seat – be so carefully concealed, and why should seeing it result in death? The Bible presents us with no other object that will cause death if it is seen! Meanwhile, there are many verses that had informed Israel that they couldn’t see God without dying (Exodus 33:20). In essence, a mere object had been elevated to the status of God Himself by this threat.
The mercy seat, resting squarely upon the Ark, had been designated as the place where God would meet Israel (Exod. 30:6). It was there that Israel would inquire of the Lord and would seek His mercy. Before the completion of the Jerusalem Temple, the Ark along with its mercy seat covering – and both of these were covered - were brought into battle with Israel. It represented the presence of God.
However, it was the mercy seat upon which no one could look, and not the Ark itself. Why the distinction. The Law had already been revealed; mercy – the fullness of the mercy of God – hadn’t.
Proverbs tells us that our God conceals:
- It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings. (Proverbs 25:2)
Moses informed Israel that the hidden things belong to God (Deut. 29:29) and there were many mysteries adjacent to the mercy seat that God hadn’t revealed. Although He ordained the Levites to make atonement for Israel’s sins, He also cryptically revealed that He will provide the ultimate atonement:
- Rejoice, O nations, with his people, for he will avenge the blood of his servants; he will take vengeance on his enemies and make atonement for his land and people. (Deut. 32:43)
However, He consistently refused to disclose the redemption or atonement price:
- For this is what the Lord says: "You were sold for nothing, and without money you will be redeemed." (Isaiah 52:3)
Redemption always cost. What then would the atonement of God’s people cost? This disclosure is curiously absent. This takes us back to the question of the nature of the atonement cover resting upon the Ark and the Law it contained. Why the great mystery? Wasn’t the Law with its sacrificial system adequate? Evidently not! Lying on top of it was something additional - a secret guarded with cherubim, smoke and the threat of death.
Parallel with the mystery are the references to a “New Covenant,” signifying that the Mosaic was not sufficient. A New Covenant was also hinted at in other ways. Although God had been very explicit about the Mosaic Covenant, there was the allusion to another secret covenant that He’d reveal only to some - to those who “fear him”:
- The Lord confides in those who fear him; he makes his covenant known to them. (Psalm 25:14)
Central to His purposes and even more hidden from sight was His Messiah who would initiate the New Covenant with His own blood (Isa. 42:6; 49:8):
- He made my mouth like a sharpened sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me into a polished arrow and concealed me in his quiver. (Isaiah 49:2; 51:16; 52:10; 53:1-3)
This brings us back to the mercy seat. Interestingly, the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) translates the corresponding Hebrew word “kapporeth” as “sacrifice of atonement” or “hilasterion” in the Greek. This same Greek word is translated as “propitiation” (KJV) in Romans 3:25:
- God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement [“propitiation,” KJV] through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished-- he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:25-26)
Jesus had to die for us to demonstrate that God is just, and that His holy nature requires punishment for every sin. Jesus then is the mercy seat, the atonement covering. Jesus was the reason that the Father tolerated Israel’s sins. Even under the Mosaic Covenant, He was the secret source of grace. It was Jesus who lead Israel in the desert (Num. 20:16; Exo. 23:20-23; 14:19; 33:2-3, 14). It was Jesus who fed Israel (1 Cor. 10:4). It was Jesus who ultimately provided atonement for the sins of Israel (Heb. 9:14). But why couldn’t anyone look upon the mercy seat without dying? Why such a severe penalty for something – Someone – so glorious.
Clearly, the mercy seat represented the very heart of all history – the highest expression of God’s glory. Even though Jesus suffered greatly as the time of His crucifixion approached, He nevertheless talked about this event as the time of His glory:
- "Now is the Son of Man glorified and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will glorify the Son in himself, and will glorify him at once.” (John 13:31-32)
But why should the Father have so carefully guarded this good news? Usually, we keep bad news a secret. My youngest brother became hospital-phobic at an early age. He had suffered at too many of them. Therefore, when my parents had to bring him in for additional treatments, they lied to him about going to the hospital.
Consequently, I had to bring charges against them. Conclusion: They hated me and I hated them. I learned that many people are not prepared to receive total transparency. In fact, it will hurt them.
When Joseph’s brother came to him seeking grain during the great famine, he didn’t disclose to them his identity. Instead, he tested them in ways that appear cruel. In the end, he saw how they were willing to lay their lives down for their youngest and favored brother, Benjamin – the one they probably even envied as they had Joseph. At that very point, Joseph broke down and sent all of his Egyptian guards out of the room. They weren’t ready for his disclosure, but his brothers were (Gen. 42-45).
There is much – perhaps all - that our God wants to disclose to us, but we can’t handle it. However, John promises that there is coming a time when we will be able to understand:
- Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:2)