Exodus 25:10-11. “They shall make an ark of acacia wood. Two cubits and a half shall be its length, a cubit and a half its breadth, and a cubit and a half its height. 11 You shall overlay it with pure gold…
16 And you shall put into the ark the testimony that I shall give you. 17 “You shall make a mercy seat of pure gold. Two cubits and a half shall be its length, and a cubit and a half its breadth. 18 And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat. 19 Make one cherub on the one end, and one cherub on the other end. Of one piece with the mercy seat shall you make the cherubim on its two ends. 20 The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be. 21 And you shall put the mercy seat on the top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the testimony that I shall give you. 22 There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you about all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel.
Moses is still up on the mountain getting instructions from God, not just Law but also Gospel. The Tabernacle blueprints. How to meet with God, even when we blow it. And the first part of the Tabernacle that God tells Moses how to build is the ark. It will be the holiest piece in the Tabernacle because the cloud of God’s glorious presence will hover over it.
The ark of the testimony (covenant), as we think of it, is basically made of two parts.
First the ark proper, a basic rectangle chest, made of common acacia wood, covered in pure gold. We are meant to see Heaven meeting Earth. God meeting man. And so in this chest is kept the testimony, the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. The Law. God’s covenant requirement for man.
On top of the ark will be the mercy seat. This is the Hebrew word kapporet. It literally means “covering” or “atonement” (years later Bible translator William Tyndale would translate this word as “mercy seat”). Functionally it’s a lid for the ark, but notice that the mercy seat would cover the Law.
Together these two parts represented the heavenly throne of God. The ark is God’s footstool, the mercy seat is his throne. Just like the throne of God is surrounded by cherubim (Ezekiel 1:5-14; Psalm 99:1; Revelation 11:19) the mercy seat is adorned with gold cherubim. Here is where God will meet with Israel.
It’s a truly fascinating object (just ask Indiana Jones).
The book of Hebrews says that everything in the Tabernacle is a shadow of a heavenly reality. Here’s how the book of Hebrews describes the ark.
Hebrews 9:5. Above it [the ark] were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat.
Stay with me here. Again we see the words “mercy seat” being used to describe the cover of the ark. Remember in Exodus the Hebrew word was kapporet or simply covering which is also the same word as atonement. In the book of Hebrews “mercy seat” is the Greek word hilasterion. Hilasterion means propitiation.
So in Exodus the lid of the ark is called “the place of atonement.”
And in Hebrews the lid of the ark is called “the place of propitiation.”
Which is a very interesting idea because to atone means to cover, and to propitiate means to satisfy or do away with.
We don’t get all the details in Exodus but here’s what we know from the rest of the Torah. The ark and the mercy seat were placed into the Holiest Place, the inner sanctum of the Tabernacle. This is where the presence of God dwelt. This is a room that the high priest of Israel would enter only one day a year on the Day of Atonement and offer the blood of the sacrifice for the past sins of the nation. The blood of the goat would be sprinkled on the mercy seat, the kapporet, covering the law (the testimony) contained in the ark from the sight of God. In other words, the blood covered or atoned for the violations of the law that had been committed by the people. God saw the blood, not the Law.
And they would do this every year, after year, after year, after year.
Atoning not propitiating.
Covering not satisfying.
Jesus’ blood did more than atone for our sins. He didn’t just cover them up for another year or until the next time you take communion or the next time you remember to confess them. He propitiated for our sins. His sacrifice satisfied every legal, moral, and even relational demand that a holy God could ever place upon us.
Hebrews 9:11-14. 11 But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) 12 he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. 13 For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.
Jesus is the perfectly holy presence of God hovering over the ark of the testimony in the Holiest Place, demanding a righteousness that we could never achieve.
Jesus is the law keeper, the ark of wood and gold that kept the covenant in our place.
Jesus is the mercy seat. The place of atonement. The place where God met man and covered our sin.
And Jesus’ blood has turned the place of atonement into a place of propitiation. Sins are not just covered. They are removed forever, as far as east is from west. God isn’t just appeased, he is satisfied. Satisfied with his son and now by your union with Christ completely satisfied with you and with me. That’s good news. That’s “to live is Christ.”