The Levitical priests—who were “many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office” (Heb. 7:23, ESV)—are contrasted with Jesus, who lives forever and has an eternal priesthood (Heb. 7:24, 25). Levitical priests “daily” (Heb. 7:27) and “every year” (Heb. 9:25) offered gifts and sacrifices “that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper” (Heb. 9:9, ESV; 10:1–4).
Jesus, however, offered Himself “once for all,” a “single sacrifice” (Heb. 10:10, 12–14, ESV) that cleanses our consciences (Heb. 9:14; 10:1–10) and puts away sin (Heb. 9:26). Jesus’ sacrifice is superior to the sacrifice of animals because Jesus was the Son of God (Heb. 7:26–28), who perfectly fulfilled God’s will (Heb. 10:5–10).
The description of the sacrifice of Jesus as having occurred “once for all” has several important implications.
First, Jesus’ sacrifice is perfectly effective and never to be surpassed. The sacrifices of the Levitical priests were repeated because they were not effective; otherwise “would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins?” (Heb. 10:2, ESV).
Second, all the different kinds of sacrifices of the Old Testament found their fulfillment at the cross. Thus, Jesus not only cleanses us from sin (Heb. 9:14), He also provides sanctification (Heb. 10:10–14) by putting sin away from our lives (Heb. 9:26). Before the priests could approach God in the sanctuary and minister in behalf of their fellow human beings, they had to be cleansed and sanctified, or consecrated (Leviticus 8, 9). Jesus’ sacrifice cleanses us and consecrates us (Heb. 10:10–14) so that we may approach God with confidence (Heb. 10:19–23) and serve Him as “a royal priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:9; Heb. 9:14).
Finally, Jesus’ sacrifice also provides nourishment for our spiritual life. It provides an example that we need to observe and follow. Thus, Hebrews invites us to fix our eyes upon Jesus, especially the events of the cross, and follow His lead (Heb. 12:1–4; 13:12, 13).
The idea that the heavenly sanctuary needs cleansing makes sense in the context of the Old Testament sanctuary. The sanctuary is a symbol of God’s government (1 Sam. 4:4; 2 Sam. 6:2), and the way God deals with the sin of His people affects the public perception of the righteousness of His government (Ps. 97:2). As ruler, God is the Judge of His people, and He is expected to be fair, vindicating the innocent and condemning the guilty. Thus, when God forgives the sinner, He carries judicial responsibility. The sanctuary, which represents God’s character and administration, is contaminated. This explains why God bears our sins when He forgives (Exod. 34:7; Num. 14:17–19; the original Hebrew for “forgiving” [nōśēʾ] in these verses means “carrying, bearing”).
The system of sacrifices in the Israelite sanctuary illustrated this point. When a person sought forgiveness, he brought an animal as a sacrifice in his behalf, confessed his sins over it, and slaughtered it. The blood of the animal was daubed upon the horns of the altar or sprinkled before the veil in the temple in the first apartment. Thus, the sin was symbolically transferred into the sanctuary. God took the sins of the people and bore them Himself.
In the Israelite system, cleansing from or atonement for sins occurred in two phases. During the year, repentant sinners brought sacrifices to the sanctuary, which cleansed them from their sin but transferred the sin to the sanctuary, to God Himself. At the end of the year, on the Day of Atonement, which was the day of judgment, God would cleanse the sanctuary by means of the Lord’s goat, the blood of which was pure and uncontaminated because no sins were confessed over it. This ritual, symbolized God’s ultimate clearing of Himself from any judicial responsibility for sin by transferring the sins from the sanctuary to the scapegoat, Azazel, who represented Satan (Lev. 16:15–22).
This two-phase system, represented by the two apartments in the earthly sanctuary, which were a pattern of the heavenly sanctuary (Exod. 25:9; Heb. 8:5), permitted God to show mercy and justice at the same time. Those who confessed their sins during the year showed loyalty to God by observing a solemn rest and afflicting themselves on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:29–31). Those who did not show loyalty would be “cut off” (Lev. 23:27–32).