“You shall make a mercy seat of pure gold. … And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat. … Of one piece with the mercy seat shall you make the cherubim on its two ends. … toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be. 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. (Exodus 25:17-21 ESV]
The term “mercy seat” is best understood using the word “propitiate” which currently means conciliation. The actual Hebrew word means “lid” or “covering.” Yet, this particular lid does more than keep the contents of a box secure. Part of the lid was the cherub with outstretched wings and faces looking down at the lid, at the contents of the ark under the lid. It is from between the cherub God spoke to Moses. “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” [Exodus 25:22 ESV].
Under the mercy seat, contained within the chest, were three things placed within at God’s command over a short period of time. First were the second set of stone tablets upon which were the Ten Commandments written by God. Moses threw down and broke the first copy on the trail into camp when he heard the people of God partying and realized their sin and decadence, their rebellion against Him and God. Also within the Ark was a jar of manna (Exodus 16:33-34), never spoiling, and Aaron’s rod, which had budded, showing God’s approval of Moses and Aaron after a rebellion (Numbers 17:10). So, within the ark were God’s law, God’s provision for His people, and a symbol of God’s absolute decrees, His choosing.
Once a year the high priest, beginning with Aaron, would enter the Holy of Holies, or the Most Holy Place, where the Ark of the Testimony was, and offer atonement for the sins of the people. He would do this following the requirements of God commanded in Leviticus 23 by sprinkling, or pouring out blood on the cover, over the mercy seat. By doing this, still only once a year, the high priest would atone for the unintentional sins of the people.
As God looked down, symbolized by the faces of the cherubim, He would see those things in the ark. He would see His assurance of His decrees in choosing those who are His to do His will even though they rebelled. He would see the provision He made for His people during their wanderings in the wilderness because of their rebellion. He would see the Laws of God broken by the people in their constant rebellion. Then He would see the blood poured out over these things. Blood does not hide from His sight the rebellion of all people. Blood says the crimes and rebellion of the people have been paid for, atonement made, the sentence carried out and finished.
Once a year the blood poured out on the Mercy Seat released those who rebelled from the eternal just sentence and punishment for their sin. But someone has to bear the brunt of the punishment. It is not the blood of bulls and goats, which mean nothing to God. For the people continued to rebel, to sin against Him, requiring sacrifice daily, and annually in the Most Holy Place. Sacrifices must be repeated. To stop this there must be one sacrifice which takes care of all sin. Either that, or each must bear the sentence for their sin alone.
It was never God’s intent that each bear the sentence for their own sin. It was His intent that One perfect sacrifice be made for the sin of all. That sacrifice was His Son, Himself. Only one who has perfectly kept the Law of God could be the substitute, to bear the sentence of sin for another. And, He did.
“For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus who God has put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sin. [Romans 5:22-25 ESV]
There is only One who could bear the burdens of the sin of any in the world, let alone all in the world, and pay the penalty of sin. It is God Himself. Jesus’ blood releases us from the sentence of sin which is eternal separation from God. His blood does not hide our sin from God. Nothing can. His blood covers our sin so that when God looks at us He sees the blood of His Son covering us. His sacrifice and blood paid the penalty and redeemed us from certain eternal death. For thousands of years the sacrifices pointed to the continual rebellion and sin of people. These same sacrifices also pointed to the one sacrifice of the One who demonstrated His eternal active love for us, His mercy toward us, through His personal sacrifice.
Yet, even though God’s mercy is greater than we can ever know there are still many who will not be saved. There remains one unforgivable sin. Only one. But, it only takes one sin to separate us from God.