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The Mercy Seat and the Empty Tomb!

Students of the Bible: Recently, I had a revelation (new to me). Perhaps it will be new to you, as well. First, I read Numbers 7:89: And when Moses went into the tent of meeting to speak with the LORD, he heard the voice speaking to him from above the mercy seat that was on the ark of the testimony, from between the two cherubim; and it spoke to him. Next, I read John 20:11-12: But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept, she stooped to look into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. Suddenly, this fresh truth exploded into my soul, moving me to tears. I pray it blesses you, too!


God wants fellowship with people. However, there is an enormous problem blocking the way: He is holy, and we are sinful. Our sinful state is so serious that without His intervention we are hopelessly lost and subject to eternal punishment. If we tried to approach Him on our own merits, we would perish in His holy “consuming fire.”[1] For us, the chasm is insurmountable. Only God could provide a way, and He did.


Back in the Old Testament, God instituted a provisional system of atonement. He had the Jewish people build a tabernacle for worship as the heart of their national life. Part of this tabernacle was cordoned off behind a heavy veil as an inner sanctuary -- The Most Holy Place or The Holy of Holies.

Inside, stood the Ark of the Covenant (or Ark of the Testimony). Atop the Ark was an oblong gold slab which served as a cover to the ark. It was flanked by two gold angels facing each other with wings extended upward. The Hebrew word for this cover is kapporeth. The standard English translation is Mercy Seat or Atonement Cover. It represented God’s throne, and He promised, “There I will meet with you.” [2]

Only the High Priest could enter The Holy of Holies. He could do so only once a year on the holiest and most solemn day on the Jewish calendar, the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur).[3]

God commanded ancient Israel to make many sacrifices throughout the course of a year. On the Day of Atonement, however, the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies and sprinkle the Mercy Seat 7 times with the blood of an innocent animal. This act of atonement (or propitiation) effectively turned God’s wrath on sin away and reconciled Him and His people. [4]

Why did God require this? He says in Lev. 17:11: For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement.

It is important to remember that while sinful humanity needs atonement, these rituals never removed sin. They merely offered a substitutionary sacrifice that covered sin provisionally. For this reason, continual sacrifices were required.

Heb 10:1, 3-4 explains it this way: The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming— not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. . . But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.

Through perpetual animal sacrifice, God kept His people conscious of the seriousness of their sin, the cost of their rebellion, the death due their sin, and the price of their redemption. The Scriptures disclosed these things, and they also promised the coming Messiah’s ultimate sacrifice. [5]


Finally, He came -- Jesus Christ, the Jewish Messiah, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). At the close of His earthly ministry, He ate the final Passover meal with His disciples. There, He took the cup of wine – the “cup of redemption” – and officially instituted the New Covenant, saying, This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you (Luke 22:20b). This represented the blood He would pour out on the Cross the next day. His sacrifice would seal the new covenant for all believers. [6]

We know the story of Jesus’ arrest and how He suffered, died, and had his body prepared and laid on a slab in a Jewish tomb.[7] We also know that Jesus did not stay dead.

Let’s return now to John 20:12. Mary Magdalene had come to the tomb and found the heavy stone rolled away. She stooped to look inside and found Jesus’ body gone from the burial slab with two brilliant angels seated upon it: She saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet.

Perhaps you have already noticed how this is reminiscent of the two carved angels (cherubim) at either end of the Mercy Seat. I have already alluded to this in my opening paragraph. In case you missed it, this parallel is what came as an exciting revelation to me. In fact, I felt awe as I began to break this down.

Just look what Hebrews 9:12 says: 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, thus obtaining eternal redemption.[8]

Did you see that? “He entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood.” What Most Holy Place? Certainly, not an earthly one which serves as a mere copy of the heavenly one.[9] Jesus became the Great High Priest who went into Heaven’s Holy of Holies. He sprinkled the eternal Mercy Seat with His own perfect blood and freed us from the consequences of sin.

Now Jesus, the Great High Priest and Lamb of Sacrifice, sits symbolically on Heaven’s Mercy Seat between the wings of the angels. No more sacrifices are needed, no more temporary covering, no more fear of eternal judgment. We are redeemed, and “by His stripes we are healed.”

And, of course, Jesus did not stay dead. He claimed to be the Resurrection and the Life and proved it. He rose from the dead, and He assures us of eternal life with Him. By grace, we have access to God’s presence and live in union with Him forever.

This truth was punctuated in Mark 15:38 when the heavy veil was torn open that had kept the Holy of holies separate and unapproachable. The barrier between the Holy God and sinful humanity was demolished! Old Testament shadows were swallowed in the brilliance of Christ – the New Testament Reality! [10]

And look what Hebrews 10:19-20 tells us: And so, dear brothers and sisters, we can boldly enter heaven’s Most Holy Place because of the blood of Jesus. By his death, Jesus opened a new and life-giving way through the curtain into the Most Holy Place. And since we have a great High Priest who rules over God’s house, let us go right into the presence of God with sincere hearts fully trusting him. For our guilty consciences have been sprinkled with Christ’s blood to make us clean, and our bodies have been washed with pure water. Let us hold tightly without wavering to the hope we affirm, for God can be trusted to keep his promise. (NLT)

Brothers and sisters, all God ever wanted was to be in loving relationship with us. Christ has accomplished it. He fulfilled the Old Testament sacrificial system, the prophecies of eternal redemption, and all the promises that bring eternal hope and joy.

The two angels inside the empty tomb asked Mary Magdalene, “Woman, why are you crying?”[11] Perhaps they would ask many of us something similar.

It’s time we grab hold of the new Reality and receive the riches of His grace and glory. Let’s enter the Holy of Holies boldly, sprinkled with Christ’s blood. He’s holding the veil open and welcoming us into God’s holy Presence as beloved children. Let’s believe! Let’s delight ourselves in His goodness, embrace His victory, and live in His fathomless love. [12]


End Notes:

[1] See Deut. 4:24, Heb. 12:29.

[2] See Ex. 25:22. (For more about the Ark of the Covenant and Mercy Seat, see Exodus 25:10-22).

[3] Moses was the one exception at the Tabernacle’s initial dedication. See Num. 7:8.

[4] See Lev. 16:14. (If you want to learn more about the Day of Atonement, all of Leviticus 16 describes it in detail.)

[5] See Isaiah 53, for instance.

[6] In Romans 3:21-26 Paul provides clarity about atonement and justification by faith in Christ.

[7] For recent excavations related to the slab and tomb, go here:

[8] Hebrews 7-10 describe in fascinating detail the New Testament/Covenant perspective.

[9] See Heb. 8:5.

[10] See Col. 2:17, Heb. 10:1.

[11] See John 20:13.

[12] While I had a personal epiphany related to the things in this article, and it was new to many of my Facebook friends, too, these are not new thoughts. Upon writing this current blog article, I read a very insightful article. I am grateful to my friend Tom Homan who dug deeper and to his Facebook friend Thomas J. Sorkness, who found this beautiful article, “The Ark of the Covenant and the Empty Tomb.” For those who want more along these lines, here it is:

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