“If God is holy, I’m in trouble.”
This was the uncomfortable realization my Jewish friend and colleague, Marty, came to when he was 12 years old. To assuage his concern, Marty went to his grandfather for counsel.
“When you go to the High Holy Days services on Yom Kippur,” Marty asked, “how do you know your sins are forgiven?” His grandfather couldn’t answer the question.
Marty went to his father and asked him the same question. His father replied, “Well, we kind of hope so.”
These unsatisfactory answers troubled Marty. He became even more troubled later on, just before his Bar Mitzvah at the age of 13.
The Hopelessness of ‘I Hope So’
It was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. As usual, the Orthodox synagogue was full of Jewish people who had come together on the most solemn day in the Jewish calendar. They believed it was the day when God sat in judgment and determined whose sins would be forgiven and their names sealed in the Book of Life for another year.
Marty was present at the services. He couldn’t help but notice an elderly gentleman he didn’t know just a few rows in front of where he was sitting. Marty was amazed at the religious earnestness of this man. The man was praying from the prayerbook, weeping, and striking his chest. As Marty looked on, he thought to himself, “This man, who knows the Hebrew, knows the ritual, and knows the ceremony, surely he must know that he’s forgiven.”
“Sir, do you know if your sins are forgiven?”
“Sonny, I only hope so.”
As soon as the service was over, Marty eagerly went to the man and asked, “Sir, do you know if your sins are forgiven?”
The man, still with tear-stained eyes, looked at Marty and confessed, “Sonny, I only hope so.”
Marty was flabbergasted. “If this highly religious and observant man doesn’t know if his sins are forgiven,” he concluded, “what chance do I ever have of knowing this!” Disillusioned, he walked away.
Marty’s experience is not unusual. Today, because there’s no longer a Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, there are no longer substitutionary blood sacrifices or the sending away of the scapegoat, which happened on Yom Kippur in biblical days. Instead, after the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, the rabbis said that people can atone for sin through prayer, repentance, and good deeds. Therefore, when Jewish people go to the synagogue today for Yom Kippur, all they can do is beat their breasts as they read a list of sins in a prayer book and then walk away, never knowing for sure if their sin has been atoned.
Making matters worse, Jewish people today have no one to intercede or mediate on their behalf before God. In biblical times, the high priest acted as the intermediary between Israel and God, particularly on the Day of Atonement. It couldn’t just be anybody. God made it clear that the only mediator that could intercede for all of the people on this day was the high priest that God had ordained and him alone (Leviticus 16:32).
With the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, however, the Levitical priesthood ceased functioning, and so did the office of high priest. Rabbinical Judaism today gets around this problem by affirming that, unlike Christianity, Judaism does not need a mediator. Yet Scripture affirms that “there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all” (1 Timothy 2:5–6).
The writer of the epistle to the Hebrews speaks much of this one Mediator. He proclaims that God has, in fact, not left us bereft of a High Priest. On the contrary, “we have a great High Priest” who is “merciful and faithful” and came to Earth as a man “to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17; 4:14). This person is none other than “the Apostle and High Priest of our confession, Christ Jesus” (3:1).
The Superior High Priest
Using Psalm 110, a Messianic psalm, the writer of Hebrews reveals that Jesus’ priesthood, being of the order of Melchizedek, is superior to the priesthood order of Aaron (7:21). Here’s how.
Levitical priests needed large numbers. The Messiah’s priesthood needed only one priest (7:23–24).
Levitical priests died. Jesus lives forever (7:23–24).
A Levitical priest’s atoning ministry would be temporary due to the priest’s death. Jesus is able to save forever because He always lives to intercede (7:23, 25).
The high priest exchanged only his clothes to provide atonement. Jesus exchanged His glory to provide salvation (Leviticus 16:4; Hebrews 2:9,14, 17; Philippians 2:5–7).
Levitical priests needed to offer sacrifices for themselves. Jesus was sinless and needed no sacrifice for Himself (Hebrews 7:26–27).
Levitical priests always had to stand while ministering because their work was never finished. Jesus sat down at the right hand of God because His atoning work was completed (10:11–12; 1:3; 8:1).
The point of the writer of Hebrews is this: The Levitical priesthood was deficient in that it could never provide lasting atonement from sin. A superior priesthood was needed, one fulfilled in Jesus the Messiah (7:11).
“Jesus is our Savior—the ultimate atonement, accomplished through the ultimate High Priest, at a price of ultimate sacrifice.
What Marty didn’t know when he was 12 years old is that Yom Kippur is really the story of the Messiah’s final atonement. Jesus is our substitutionary, once-for-all-time sacrifice (Isaiah 53:11) whose blood is sprinkled in the heavenly holy of holies (Hebrews 9:12). Jesus is our scapegoat who takes away our sins (1 John 3:5). And Jesus is our High Priest who always lives to save us (Hebrews 7:25).
Jesus is our Savior—the ultimate atonement, accomplished through the ultimate High Priest, at a price of ultimate sacrifice.
Marty discovered this later on in life and believed in Jesus as his Messiah and Savior. I wish I had been there to tell him when he was 12, when he was yearning to know how he could be sure his sins were forgiven forever. But now he knows.
The question is, do you?