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The ark of the covenant symbolized the presence of God among his people. It also served as the meeting place between God and his people.

Mercy Seat

We learn one further crucial point about the ark from some later instructions given in the book of Leviticus. Once each year, on the Day of Atonement Yom Kippur , the high priest was commanded to enter the Holy of holies and sprinkle the blood of a sacrificial animal on the cover of the ark.


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Only thus could an infinitely holy God be approached. Now the most important part of the whole ark was that lid, that golden cover with its cherubim.

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The lid on the ark was the key to everything. So various English versions of the Bible struggle to get at all these meanings as they translate this important word.

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Scholars tell us that his grasp of Hebrew was somewhat shaky, but he had a gift for vivid language and an unerring grasp of the gospel. He meets his people at the mercy seat, by virtue of the atoning blood that is sprinkled there. When we turn back to Romans 3 we run into more translation struggles. Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. But in the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, hilasterion is the word used for kapporeth.

Tender Prey

Christ Jesus is the hilasterion , the kapporeth , the propitiation, the mercy seat, whom God put forward to be received by faith. The question, you see, is this: how do we draw near to God? How can we, as sinners, enter the presence of the infinitely Holy One? And how can God receive us, sinful as we are?

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Others, with more sense, know there is a problem with us. We must acknowledge our sin, confess it, and ask God for his mercy and forgiveness. Our hearts must be changed, and unless we repent, we will not be saved.

The Mercy Seat

But the full message of the Bible, proclaimed in the symbolism of the ark and its mercy seat, is that something more even than our repentance has to happen. Something must be done — something objective, outside of us — about our sins. Something has to happen for God as well as for us in order for sins to be forgiven. Propitiation means to pacify an offended party by the offering of a payment or a sacrifice. It conjures up an image of an angry, vengeful, bloodthirsty god, a god who must be placated — bought off with blood — before he will turn from his wrath.

This is a picture, they say, more appropriate to some pagan idol than to the God of grace and love whom we see in the Bible.


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  • I agree. God is not an angry tyrant screaming for blood. The LORD said to Moses: "Tell your brother Aaron that he shall not enter at any time into the holy place inside the veil, before the mercy seat which is on the ark, or he will die; for I will appear in the cloud over the mercy seat. Now when these things have been so prepared, the priests are continually entering the outer tabernacle performing the divine worship, but into the second, only the high priest enters once a year, not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the sins of the people committed in ignorance.

    The Holy Spirit is signifying this, that the way into the holy place has not yet been disclosed while the outer tabernacle is still standing, which is a symbol for the present time. Accordingly both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make the worshiper perfect in conscience, since they relate only to food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until a time of reformation. But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption.

    Now when Moses went into the tent of meeting to speak with Him, he heard the voice speaking to him from above the mercy seat that was on the ark of the testimony, from between the two cherubim, so He spoke to him. All rights reserved.


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