He’s a peasant, a shepherd with only a small family pasture—mostly rocks and thorns—in the driest and poorest part of Palestine. He spends his days following his sheep through rough wadis as they hunt for a few blades of grass or the barest sip of seeping water. At home, his wife nurtures a patch of barley, another of lentils, a few grape vines and cucumbers, and half a dozen olive trees. Theirs isn’t an easy existence: the margin between survival and starvation is thin.
One morning in the spring the father calls his family to the sheep pen. As they watch, he inspects each of a dozen or so year-old lambs. None of the animals are superb, but he chooses the largest and best-shaped one. Then the family sets out on a trip.
It’s a long dusty walk, up and down hills—and a difficult one for a small child, an infant in arms, a pregnant woman, and a man carrying a bleating lamb. They stop at a brook for water, and they lunch on cold food that they unfold from a leather wrapper. It’s several hours before they see their destination. From a hilltop they see a white linen fence surrounding a large, lavishly ornamented tent. In front of the tent they see two unusual objects: a large basin and a sculpted altar set with a smoldering fire burning on its grill.
They recognize the man who greets them at the gate by his peculiar attire. He’s from the tribe of Levi, which was tasked with the duties of priesthood. The family follows him into the enclosure. The father places the lamb on the ground next to the altar, and the family stays a few steps behind him. The father kneels on the ground next to the lamb as the priest intones instructions. The father places his hands on the lamb’s head and begins to speak. Haltingly, in simple words, he confesses aloud his sins and those of his family. Perhaps someone has been untruthful; there may have been infidelity, sharp dealing with a neighbor, anger or cruelty, or the family’s lack of devotion to God.
The father stops. The priest pulls from the folds of his robe a bronze knife with a surprisingly keen edge and hands it to the penitent man. As the priest watches, the man slices the knife into the lamb’s neck. Blood sprays out. The child, watching, cries out and hides his eyes. His mother weeps.
The priest places the dead lamb on the altar with some charred chunks of firewood, and the family watches as their best lamb is consumed in the flames. Raising his eyes and hands to heaven, the priest pleads with God to honor this family’s sacrifice. Then, turning back to them, he assures them that God has, indeed, forgiven them.
The family returns home with spiritual peace, yet a disturbing picture remains with them, and it’s never forgotten: that moment of the convergence of their recited sins with the death of a lamb that had done nothing to deserve to die.
Jesus in the sanctuary
The Hebrew sanctuary with its blood sacrifices could be thought of as primitive and pagan were it not for what happened centuries later. For when Jesus came to this earth, it became clear that these sacrificial lambs were a metaphor for something far greater. Similarly, it isn’t a preacher’s high-flown rhetoric or a burst of poetic rhapsody that causes John the Baptist to exclaim on seeing Jesus, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). He means precisely what he says. John has seen animals sacrificed for sins, perhaps even participated in the ceremony himself. But he’s always wondered how the blood of one of God’s creatures could be valuable enough to erase sin (Hebrews 10:4). On seeing Jesus, John realizes that the sacrifice of an animal was a metaphor for the real sacrifice. And that real sacrifice is Jesus. Human beings brought animals to sacrifice. But Jesus was God’s Lamb.
You’re probably familiar with the events of Jesus’ last week: the Passover supper, His trial, His crucifixion and burial, and the triumphant resurrection on Sunday morning. And then the story takes a fascinating turn. The sanctuary service, from beginning to end, was a metaphor for God’s plan of salvation. When Jesus rose into heaven (Acts 1:9–11), He took on a new role. Having fulfilled the function of the Lamb, He became our Priest. The book of Hebrews explains Jesus’ role as our heavenly Priest.
- Jesus became our Priest when He returned to heaven: “We have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God” (Hebrews 4:14).
- The sanctuary rites that were symbolic on this earth are a reality in heaven, where Jesus serves on our behalf “at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven” (Hebrews 1:3).
- Jesus’ sacrifice qualified Him to be our Priest. “He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:12).
- Jesus’ experience as a human qualifies him to speak on our behalf: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).
- Jesus’ priesthood makes it possible for us to ask God for forgiveness, with the assurance that we will receive it. “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).
- Jesus is our continuing advocate in heaven, speaking directly to God on our behalf: “He entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence” (Hebrews 9:24).
It was the apostle John, that already-forgiven “son of thunder” (Mark 3:17), who made it clear that Jesus’ priestly ministry was to advocate on our behalf (1 John 2:1)—in other words, to speak for us to his Father.
Imagine that you’ve been charged with a serious crime, and you’re about to appear before a judge for trial and sentencing. You realize that the evidence against you is damning. You committed the crime, and you have no hope of anything but a guilty verdict and a well-deserved sentence. But before your trial, a government-appointed defender visits you and introduces himself. He’s caring and sympathetic, and he’s taken a particular interest in your case. He explains that the judge is his father, and even though you’re guilty of the charge, he’s going to appeal to his father to extend undeserved mercy to you so that you can be set free, giving you a chance to live a better life.
This scene is unlikely to occur in an earthly courtroom, but it’s the usual one in the heavenly courts, where Jesus pleads His own sacrifice as evidence of His love for us.
Paul called Jesus a “mediator between God and men” (1 Timothy 2:5, 6), and that’s precisely what He’s doing every time you and I kneel in prayer to ask for forgiveness. It’s because God loves humanity so much that He hates the damage sin has done to us, the creatures created in His image (Genesis 1:26). “The wages of sin is death,” declares Paul. That’s what we sinners deserve! But Jesus never ceases to remind His Father and ours that He died to win our forgiveness. And so Paul can go on to declare confidently that “the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).