On a recent trip I found myself staying at a colleague’s house attempting to put my three-year-old daughter to bed in a strange new location. She was lying in the finished basement on an inflatable mattress, and she was having a really hard time listening to the adults enjoying themselves upstairs while her cruel parents made her go to bed so much earlier. I lay down beside her on the inflatable mattress and tried to pacify her distress with storytelling, fetching stuffed animals, and repeatedly telling her to “close your eyes and go to sleep.”
As if that ever works!
I wracked my brain trying to think of something to help her board the station to dream land. Finally I discovered a distraction that fascinated her and eventually gave her little mind something to think about as she drifted off to sleep. And all thanks to the little nightlight by her bed that cast a light on the ceiling.
I put my hand over the nightlight and, to her amazement; a shadowy hand the size of the mattress projected itself onto the ceiling. If I moved my hand away, it shrunk. Next my bare foot was projected onto the ceiling along with various other objects. She giggled and asked for more as we played with the shadows. Eventually she was content enough to be at peace and fall asleep.
Shadows are interesting things. They give a sense of what an object is like, a basic outline, an image, movement that lets you know the object is there. But shadows are devoid of colors and other details. They don’t smell like anything, and the size is never quite right. Yet the shadow undeniably demonstrates that there is an object behind it.
A Bible shadow
The Bible talks about shadows. It tells us that the ancient Israelite sanctuary services were a shadow. The author of Hebrews makes the point in a lengthy quote:
“The point of what we are saying is this: We do have such a high priest, who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, and who serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by man. Every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices, and so it was necessary for this one also to have something to offer. If he were on earth, he would not be a priest, for there are already men who offer the gifts prescribed by the law. They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. This is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: ‘See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain’ ” (Hebrews 8:1–5; italics added).
Note that both the sanctuary given to Moses and the ministry of the priests in that sanctuary were mere shadows in comparison to the heavenly sanctuary and Christ’s ministry as our High Priest. This “sanctuary of shadows” was intended to point the worshipers of God to greater future realities about God and His plan of salvation.
Theologians use technical terms to describe shadowy forms that are fulfilled by greater realities. The shadowy form is called the “type” and the reality behind the shadow is called the “antitype.” The Hebrew sanctuary and its services provide many examples of this type and antitype, especially the sacrificial system.
In the Old Testament, if you wanted forgiveness and atonement for sin, you had to shed an animal’s blood. Leviticus records a number of animals that qualified, based on the kind of sin, who committed the sin, and the person’s socio-economic status. One of the primary animals that was used to atone for sin was an unblemished lamb (Leviticus 4:32).
These lambs were the type. The New Testament tells us about the antitype. When a prophet named John the Baptist saw Jesus, he declared, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). Just as the lamb in the Old Testament sanctuary service took the sins of the penitent upon itself and died for them, so Jesus took the sins of the whole world upon Himself and died for them.
Of course, the life of an animal could never atone for the sins of a human being, which is why these sacrifices were only a shadow or type of Christ’s great sacrifice on the cross. The author of Hebrews wrote:
“The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death” (9:13, 14).
Jesus’ sacrifice fulfilled the shadowy sacrifice of animals and did it far better.
Christ as High Priest
However, sacrifice is not the only thing Jesus did to fulfill the “types” in the Old Testament sanctuary system. He is also the antitype of the ministry of the priests, especially the High Priest.
Every day the people brought sacrifices to the sanctuary for their sins, and the priests assisted them in offering these sacrifices. The sinner confessed his or her sins over the animal, then slew it, and the priest sprinkled the animal’s blood either on the altar in the courtyard or on the curtain inside the sanctuary. In this way the people’s sins were transferred to the sanctuary. Over the course of a year many sins accumulated in the sanctuary.
If you own a grill and enjoy barbequing at all, then you know that grills tend to get more and more grimy and crusty through extended use. So you get to spend some quality time with a solvent and a wire brush to clean it before you cook food on it again.
In the same way, the symbolic sin that the sanctuary had absorbed during the previous 12 months needed to be cleaned out. So once a year on a day called the “Day of Atonement,” the high priest conducted a special ceremony to “cleanse the sanctuary” from all these accumulated sins. The details are found in Leviticus 16.
Here’s what happened.
The high priest took two goats and “cast lots” for them. Casting lots was something like drawing straws. One lot was for the Lord and the other for the scapegoat. The Bible says that Aaron was to bring the goat whose lot fell to the Lord and sacrifice it for a sin offering, while the scapegoat was presented alive before God to make an atonement by sending it into the wilderness (Leviticus 16:9, 10).
The author of Hebrews points out that, after the Cross, Jesus is our High Priest, and this gives us confidence because we can know that He sympathizes with our struggles on earth as He intercedes for us in heaven.
What’s more, Hebrews 9:12 records that Jesus, following the “type” in the Old Testament, has begun a second or final phase of His heavenly ministry in the “Most Holy Place” in heaven. Jesus’ heavenly ministry, which applies the benefits of His completed atonement on the cross for the forgiveness of sins, is in its final phase. Once that is completed, Jesus will come again to take those who have placed their faith in His sacrificial death on the cross to be with Him.
Let’s await His return and the eradication of sin from this world with eager anticipation. While we may never understand all the particulars of His heavenly ministry, He has revealed enough to give us hope and assurance while we wait in the shadow of His return.