Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Mercy Seat

The following description is found in James Montgomery Boice's excellent book Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace?. The ladies of our church are reading through and discussing it together. This portion is found in the chapter called "Christ Alone" which we discussed on Wednesday night. It was such a wonderful time of sweet fellowship and worship of our great Savior. It is my hope that you too will be left standing in awe before the precious blood of Christ that covers us at the mercy seat.

"This brings us to one of the most beautiful pictures of the work of Christ in all of the Bible: the ark of the covenant, which was kept within the Most Holy Place of the Jewish wilderness tabernacle and was the focal point of Israel's worship.

The ark was a wooden box about a yard long, covered with gold, and made to contain the stone tables of the law that Moses had received on Mount Sinai. (The first set of tables had been broken, but a new set had been written.) This box had a cover called the mercy seat, and upon the mercy seat, at each end, facing each other, were statues of cherubim (angels) whose wings stretched upward and then outward, almost meeting directly over the ark. In a symbolic way, God was imagined to dwell above the ark, between or over the outstretched wings of the cherubim.

As it stands, the ark is a picture of judgment, intended to produce dread in the worshiper through a disclosure of his or her sin. For what does God see as He looks down upon earth from between the outstretched wings of the cherubim? Clearly, he sees the law of Moses which each of us has broken. He sees that he must act toward us in judgement. God cannot ignore sin; sin must be punished.

But this is where the mercy seat comes in,
and this is why it is called the mercy seat. Once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the Jewish hight priest entered the Most Holy Place to make propitiation for the people's sins. Propitiation is the very word which (in Greek) was used to translate "mercy seat". Moments before, the high priest had offered (in the outer courtyard of the tabernacle) a sacrifice for his own sin and the sins of his family. Now he took the blood of a second animal, entered the Most Holy Place, and carefully sprinkled the blood of that sacrifice upon the mercy seat, which was the ark's covering. What is symbolized now? Now, as God looks down from between the outstretched wings of the cherubim, he sees not the law of Moses which we have broken but the blood of the innocent victim. He sees that the punishment has been meted out. Propitiation has been made, and his love goes out to save all who come to him through faith in that sacrifice.

Jesus told a parable about two men who went to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee; the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up to pray - as everyone would have agreed he should do: "Come here, Mr. Pharisee. Stand up where we can all hear you. Be quiet, everyone. The Pharisee is going to pray."

And pray he did. He prayed a magnificent prayer - about himself: "God, I thank you that I am not like the other men - robbers, evildoers, adulterers - or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get." (Luke 18:11-12). The Pharisee was not lying. He really did give a tenth of his income to the temple. He really did fast twice a week. He was not a thief or an adulterer. Moreover, I am sure others would have concurred in this evaluation. Here was an outstanding man, a credit to his community. The point of Jesus' parable depends on recognizing that if anyone could hope to be accepted by God on the basis of his character or good works, it was the Pharisee.

Then there was the tax collector. He "stood at a distance" - where he belonged. Jesus said of him "He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner'" (v. 13). And why not? He was a sinner. He had plenty to beat his breast about.

It is had to imagine a greater contrast than the one between these two men: moral versus immoral; noble versus base; proud versus shameful; self-confident versus cringing. Yet when the Lord ended his story, he reversed the judgement every one of his hearers had been making and declared: "I tell you that this man [the tax collector], rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted" (v. 14). No cinematic melodrama or dime-store novel ever had a more surprising ending than this parable.

Why did the tax-collector, rather than the Pharisee, go home justified? It is true that the Pharisee was a sinner. He was a sinner in spite of his self-righteousness. But so was the tax collector. The only differences between the two men were that the tax collector knew he was a sinner, while the Pharisee did not know it; and the tax collector approached God, not on the basis of his good works (which he did not have), but on the basis of God's provision, symbolized by the mercy seat and the propitiation that took place there. The tax collector's prayer literally reads, 'God, be "mercy-seated" to me, the sinner.'

The prayer is worth exploring. The first word of the prayer is 'God'; the last word is 'sinner'. This reflects what happens when a human being becomes aware of the true God. When a person becomes conscious of God, he does not proceed unchanged in his supposed 'righteousness', as the Pharisee did. Rather he becomes conscious of sin, and the more so the closer to God he comes. We know that the tax collector knew God because he knew he was - and did not hesitate to describe himself as - a sinner.

Then, between the beginning of the prayer ('God') and the end of it ('me, a sinner') are the words 'be mercy-seated to me.' This shows that the tax collector also understood propitiation. He knew that between the presence of the Holy God (who looked down in judgment upon the law which he had broken) and himself there had to come the blood of the sacrificial victim. He was coming to God on the basis of the mercy already provided by God through the sacrifice. The tax-collector was saying 'Treat me on the basis of the blood sprinkled upon the mercy seat.' No one can be saved without propitiation."

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