From Exodus to Hebrews
What's with all the covenants, blood and priests?
I get it. Understanding all the different covenants, the bloodshed (sacrifices) and priests, can get a bit tricky. It can feel like we are so far removed from those outdated institutions.
But let me encourage you to not shy away from gaining a greater understanding of these concepts. Our relationship with God still relies on a covenant, a blood sacrifice and a priest.
The information on these topics is extensive, so I am going to try my best to give you the basic low-down.
What’s with all the covenants?
Covenants are binding promises that can either be unconditional or conditional. God made a covenant with Abraham when he promised that his descendants would become a great nation and inherit the land of Canaan.
As a nation, God made a covenant with his people, the Israelites, after rescuing them from Egypt. It is this covenant that is often referred to in the New Testament as the “old covenant”. God rescued his people first and then gave them the law. It’s now by God’s grace that people are saved, not as a result of their obedience.
The “old covenant” relationship began when God rescued the Israelites, promised them that they would be his treasured possession among all the nations, and then gave them the law (Exodus 19:4-6).
The Israelites’ obedience to the law was a response to being saved. It was also the condition required to enjoy the promises of the covenant.
The purpose of the Ten Commandments and the instructions for building the tabernacle (the tent where God would live with his people) was to prepare the Israelites for God to live among them.
The next part of the law, in the book of Leviticus, explains how sinful people can live with a holy God. After all, the conditions of the covenant were already broken by the Israelites in the situation of worshipping the golden calf (Exodus 32:1-6). So this is where we come to the need for all the blood.
What’s with all the blood?
Early on in the covenant relationship it was clear that the Israelites couldn’t keep God’s law because of their sin and unfaithfulness.
Even though their sin meant they deserved death, God graciously provided a way out. Instead of offering their own lives, they could offer animal sacrifices as a substitute (Leviticus1: 3-4).
The blood represents the life that has been given as payment for sin. Essentially, the people were allowed to live because the animal died.
Sacrifices had to be made on a daily basis because of the recurrence of sin, including an annual ‘Day of Atonement’ (Leviticus 16:1-34). The sacrifices also needed to be ongoing because human sin is ongoing.
What’s with all the priests?
The priests performed the sacrifices on behalf of the people. The priests had to atone for their own sins before they could atone for the sins of the people.
They were the only people who could enter into the presence of God in the Holy Place (the first section of the tabernacle), and only the high priest went behind the veil, into the Most Holy Place (second section of the tabernacle, closest to the presence of God).
The tabernacle, blood sacrifices and the role of the priests were all vital for God to live amongst his people and not destroy them.
The NEW perfect covenant, sacrifice and priest
Despite this system, God’s people kept demonstrating their sinfulness and unfaithfulness, which brought on the need for a new covenant.
Jeremiah 31 informs us of a new covenant—one that can’t be broken because of the sin of humanity (Jeremiah 31:32). In this new covenant, people will be completely forgiven and know God personally.
This new covenant was brought in by Jesus’ death. At the last supper, he took the cup and said…
"This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you." (Luke 22:20)
Jesus revealed the new covenant, served as the ultimate high priest and offered himself as a sacrifice for the whole world (Hebrews 9:15).
The book of Hebrews explains how Christ is superior to the ways of the old covenant. Jesus is our perfect sacrifice because he is both fully man and fully God. He was tempted in every way that we are but did not sin (Hebrews 4:15) and therefore is the perfect substitute, who died on our behalf and paid the price for our sin forever.
Jesus is the perfect eternal high priest who is in heaven (the true tabernacle) (Hebrews 8:1-13) and therefore we know that we can approach the presence of God without fear of being destroyed.
The old covenant and the law revealed the need for the separation of man from God due to sin. The new covenant reveals how Jesus enabled sinful humanity to live in an intimate relationship with God forever (Hebrews 8:7).
Click here to watch a helpful video summary of atonement.