Thursday, April 8, 2004
Frame and curtain placed in front of the altar.
The Most Holy Place was the innermost altar in the temple. That altar was where God’s presence dwelt, appearing as cloud. The Most Holy Place was so sacred that it was curtained off, and only one time per year was a priest allowed to enter. This was the Day of Atonement, and when we understand what it took for a priest to enter the Most Holy Place, then we’ll begin to understand what happened on Good Friday and what happens in the Lord’s Supper.
Leviticus chapter 16 gives the process for the Day of Atonement. John Kleinig, a Lutheran professor from Australia, explains it this way: once a year on the Day of Atonement, God provided a way to cleanse the people of their sins that the other sacrifices didn’t atone for. It dealt with all of the impurities of the people which they brought into the sanctuary, God’s location on earth, and therefore God, through this ritual, could continue to meet His people in that place. It cleansed the people and the sanctuary. It meant that the priests could continue to represent the people in the sanctuary, to offer sacrifices, and to work with the holy things of God.
The cleansing on the Day of Atonement began in the Most Holy Place and moved outward from there. The blood of sacrifices needed to be sprinkled on the altar in the Most Holy Place, but how? You couldn’t just enter through that curtain whenever and however you felt like it. God’s presence was in there, sure to kill anyone who didn’t enter in the right way, who dared approach God’s holiness with the stink of their own sin. So God gave the priests very specific steps to take.
First of all, only one priest would enter, the high priest. He would begin by washing his entire body. Normally priests would wash their hands and feet before offering a sacrifice, but entering the Most Holy Place required an entire bath. Then the priest would put on special vestments, special priestly clothes reserved for this one day, this one act. And for this ritual, no one could be in the temple. He did this completely alone.
With the animals ready for sacrifice, the high priest was then ready to go behind the shielding curtain, as it was called. This curtain shielded the Most Holy Place, and really shielded the priests from God’s holiness. With his body washed and his special robes, the priest had to do 3 things behind the curtain.
First he carried burning incense to create a cloud of smoke which gave him protection from the full holiness of God. (light incense, take behind curtain) The idea is that the aroma of the incense is more pleasing than the stink of our sins.
Next he took in blood from the bull sacrificed for the priest’s own sin. He sprinkled blood on the altar for his personal sins. (take cup behind curtain) If the high priest was going to approach God on behalf of the people, he first had to make sure God would accept him despite his own sins.
Third, he entered the Most Holy Place and took blood from the goat sacrificed for the sins of the entire congregation, the entire people of God. (take second cup behind curtain) This made atonement for the sins of all of God’s people.
Meanwhile, all of the people might be at home, they couldn’t be in the temple, but they also couldn’t work or eat that day. They had to fast and pray as their participation in the Day of Atonement.
After the high priest had done these three things, he took the blood and sprinkled it on other parts of the sanctuary, bringing out the blood from the Most Holy Place and using it to cleanse the parts of the sanctuary that they used on a daily basis.
When he completed the sacrifices, he took off his special vestments to be set aside until next year, and then took another bath. This bath was kind of like washing off the super holiness that he had come into contact with in the Most Holy Place. And then no one would enter behind the curtain for another year.
This act ensured that God would allow His people to meet in the temple, would continue to accept their sacrifices and worship, would allow the priests to continue to represent the people before Him, and God would continue to forgive
the sins of the people through the other sacrifices.
But then the temple curtain, the shielding curtain was torn in two from top to bottom, torn in two the moment Christ died on the cross. (pull curtain open) Knowing now what you know about the Most Holy Place, you can imagine that there might have been panic. With the curtain torn, the people were no longer protected from God’s presence. But really there was no need for panic, because through the death of Christ, there was no need for the curtain, the annual Day of Atonement, or for any fear about approaching God.
But why? What has Christ done? He has once and for all fulfilled the goal of the Day of Atonement and all of the other sacrifices. In one act, He atoned for our sins, paid for, made up for our sins.
John Kleinig describes the Day of Atonement this way, “On this most holy day, the most holy person in Israel performed the most holy rite in the Most Holy Place with the most holy blood from the most holy animals, so that the sinful Israelites could have safe access to their most holy God.”
Now take that same description and see how Christ fulfills or completes what took place on the Day of Atonement. The most holy day is now Good Friday, not an annual ritual which we must repeat, but a single day in history. The most holy person offering the sacrifice on Good Friday is the most holy person of all time, Jesus Christ, perfect as a human, our true high priest. He performed the most holy rite, the sacrifice for atonement, a sacrifice which completely outweighs all of the other sacrifices.
He offered this sacrifice in the Most Holy Place—not in the temple but in God’s heavenly throne room. Yes, the physical sacrifice took place on Golgotha, on that cross on that hill outside of Jerusalem, but Christ offered up His blood in God’s throne room. He offered up the most holy blood, His own, from the most holy sacrifice, His own life on the cross.
He did all of this so that sinful people could have safe access to their most holy God. The writer of Hebrews shows us how day after day, year after year, the priests offered sacrifices which could never really take away sins. Now, though, Christ, the true high priest, offered one sacrifice which takes away all of our sins. Through that sacrifice, we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place, to draw near to God, to approach His throne without fear. Through the blood of Christ, through His own body, we enter through the curtain into the very throne room of God. That’s why the temple curtain was torn on Good Friday; that’s why there’s no need to have a curtain in our sanctuary; that’s why we are not afraid to approach God’s altar.
Which brings us to Maundy Thursday and the Lord’s Supper. The first thing we realize from understanding the Day of Atonement and Good Friday is that the death of Christ is the ultimate sacrifice needed for sins. There would not be any need for future sacrifices. The writer of Hebrews points this out by saying, “But when this priest [Jesus] had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God.” Normally a priest would never sit down in the sanctuary, never sit down while offering sacrifices, in order to show that the work was never complete. Christ, however, could sit down, because the sacrifices came to end in that one act, in His death on the cross.
So when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we participate in this one sacrifice from Good Friday. We do not repeat the sacrifice as the Catholic Church has taught. There is no need to repeat the sacrifice. We do not kill Christ again. There is no need for the annual, repeatable Day of Atonement. There is no need to continue killing Christ. His one death on that Good Friday is sufficient, is the death that covers over all sins. So when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, do not think of it as a repeated sacrifice. Think of it as a continuation of the one sacrifice that Christ offered on Good Friday.
But if the sacrifice isn’t being repeated, you may wonder where the body and blood come from. Well, just as the priest brought out the blood from the Most Holy Place to then cleanse other parts of the sanctuary, so, too, Christ offered His blood in the heavenly throne room of God and then brought out that blood to us, brought it out to cleanse us. So when we eat His body and drink His blood in the Supper tonight, He is offering us this meal from the sacrifice made on Good Friday. In fact, through Holy Communion, we enter the heavenly realm; we come in contact with heavenly things, heavenly food and drink.
And it is this heavenly blood that marks us to be saved from death, cleanses us from our sins, connects us with Good Friday, gives us forgiveness for all of our sins. Christ has done this so that you could have safe access to your most holy God.
Enter the Most Holy Place. Tonight you can approach the altar with full confidence. Jesus Christ opened up a new and living way to the Father. We enter through the body of Christ. That’s why the temple curtain was torn in two. There doesn’t have to be a barrier anymore. Christ pulls back the curtain through His death, opens wide the way into heaven. Jesus said, “I am the Gate,” meaning the Gate into eternal life, but here we see that He is also the Open Curtain.
So enter the Most Holy Place; enter through the Open Curtain. Where the curtain shielded people from God’s presence in the temple, now you are shielded from God’s holiness through the blood of Christ. Where the priest had to take a bath before he performed the ritual, now you are fully clean through the waters of Holy Baptism. Where the priest first made a cloud of incense to protect him in the Most Holy Place, now you have the aroma of Christ, His pleasing fragrance.
Enter the Most Holy Place. Tonight through the Lord’s Supper, you are being invited into the Most Holy Place, into God’s heavenly throne room. The curtain stands open. The altar is in plain view. The body and blood offered up for sacrifice are actually offered to us, the sinners, to eat and drink.
Enter the Most Holy Place and receive the body and blood of Christ, the forgiveness of all your sins, and the promise of eternal life.