In his exposition of Hebrews, John Owen said:
The high priest of old made atonement, and typically purged the sins of the people, by sacrificing of beasts according to the appointment of the law, Lev. xvi. This our high priest did by the sacrifice of himself, Isa. liii. 10. Heb. ix. 12. Of the nature of propitiatory or expiatory sacrifices, we must treat at large afterwards. We keep ourselves now to the apostle’s general proposition, expressing briefly the sacerdotal office of Christ, and the excellency of it, in that he really purged our sins, and that by the sacrifice of himself. And this was in and by his death on the cross, with his antecedent preparatory sufferings. Some distinguish between his death and the oblation of himself. This they say he performed in heaven, when as the High Priest of his church, he entered into the holiest not made with hands, whereunto his death was but a preparation. For the slaying of the beast, they say, was not the sacrifice, but the offering of its blood on the altar, and the carrying of it into the holy place. But this utterly overthrows the whole sacrifice of Christ, which indeed is the thing by them aimed at. It is true the slaying of the beast was not the whole sacrifice, but only an essential part of it, as was also the offering of its blood, and the sprinkling of it in the holy place, in the anniversary sacrifice of atonement, but not in any other. And the reason why the whole sacrifice could not consist in any one action, arose merely from the imperfection of the things and persons employed in that work. The priest was one thing, the beast to be sacrificed another, the altar another, the fire and the altar another, the incense added another, each of them limited and designed to its peculiar end, so that the atonement could not be made by any one of them, nor the sacrifice consist in them. But now in this sacrifice of Christ all these meet in one, because of his perfection. He himself was both priest, sacrifice, altar and incense, as we see in our progress, and he perfected his whole sacrifice at once, in and by his death and blood-shedding, as the apostle evidently declares, chap. ix. 12. 14.
Thus by himself did Christ purge our sins, making an atonement for them by the sacrifice of himself in his death, that they should never be imputed to them that believe.
Recently, I watched a debate between James White and Robert Sungenis on whether the Mass is a propitiatory sacrifice (link). It reminded me of discussions I’ve had with Roman Catholic on this subject. I’ve spoken with Roman Catholics who have pointed out that Leviticus 16:17 says that the sacrificial ritual which [typically] made atonement for the people of Israel was incomplete until the high priest sprinkled the blood of the sacrifice in the holy of holies; Owen agrees. But they would then use this to argue that Christ’s antitypical death on the cross was a necessary but insufficient condition for our atonement, for it is clear in Hebrews 9 that Christ’s entrance into the holy of holies followed His death. You might ask why it would matter so much to Roman Catholics when atonement was or is made. Philip Hughes touches on the seeming answer here:
Another view, which is similar only in incidental respects and which is advocated in the main by Anglo-Catholic and Roman Catholic scholars, is that in the heavenly sanctuary a perpetual sacrificial offering by Christ of Himself takes place. This interpretation is commonly linked with a particular doctrine of eucharistic sacrifice taking place simultaneously here on earth. It is argued, further, on the basis of Hebrews 8:3, according to which “every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices,” so that “it is necessary for this priest (the ascended Lord ministering in the true tabernacle, 8:1-2) also to have something to offer,” that if Christ is not offering sacrifice He cannot fulfill the priestly function, and that therefore His role in heaven must be that of a constantly sacrificing priest. Because of the emphatic teaching of the New Testament, and not least the Epistle to the Hebrews, regarding the final once-for-all character of Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross, it is hardly open to anyone to suggest that in heaven He offers an atoning sacrifice other than that which He offered on the cross; consequently the explanation is proposed that it is a perpetual offering of this same sacrifice that takes place in the heavenly sanctuary.
Before recently studying the subject, this used to trouble me quite a bit. The doctrinal system Roman Catholics have erected is quite intricate, and to an inexperienced Christian, a knowledgeable Roman Catholic can put a daunting amount of words to paper on pet subjects like the Eucharist.
Now, though, I find it rather ironic that some of the same Roman Catholics who argue for a strict correspondence between type and antitype also argue that the throne on which Christ is seated is an altar. Though this would need to be true for a Eucharistic sacrifice, there is never said to be an altar in the typical holy of holies. Speaking of altars, though, Hebrews does clearly use the Day of Atonement ritual as a lens through which believers can understand the import of Christ’s work:
Hebrews 13:9 Do not be carried away by all sorts of strange teachings. For it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not ritual meals, which have never benefited those who participated in them.
10 We have an altar that those who serve in the tabernacle have no right to eat from.
11 For the bodies of those animals whose blood the high priest brings into the sanctuary as an offering for sin are burned outside the camp.
12 Therefore, to sanctify the people by his own blood, Jesus also suffered outside the camp.
While priests were usually apportioned meat to eat from a sin or purification offering, they were precluded from this rite when blood was required to be brought into the tent of meeting to make atonement (Leviticus 6:24-30). Such offerings occurred after the anointed [high (cf. Numbers 35:25)] priest or the congregation had inadvertently sinned (4:7, 18) as well as on the annual Day of Atonement (16:3, 5). Rather than being permitted to eat of these sacrifices, following the priestly ritual, the bodies of the priest’s bull and the congregations’ bull or goat were carried to and burned outside of the camp (4:12, 21, 16:27).
Clearly, Christ’s suffering and abuse which the author of Hebrews intended to parallel to the sin offering is in reference to His sacrificial, bodily, bloody crucifixion, the result of which sanctifies the people. The cross corresponds to the altar of burnt offering on which sacrifices were made under the OT sacrificial system. The cross was outside Jerusalem (John 19:20), the camp.
So Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is the Christian altar from which grace can be conferred to believer-priests who eat from it. Such participation in His sacrifice is through assent to right doctrine. Thus, no spiritual benefit can come from accepting and acting upon strange teachings such as an inordinate or passé emphasis on ritual meals. Those who still serve in earthly tabernacles have forsaken the realized reality for the external shadow which merely typified it.
This is all very interesting, but we have to be careful not to push parallels too far. There are the obvious examples: Christ needs no sacrifice for Himself, His sacrifice for those whom He functions as a priestly representative is Himself rather than some other living entity, etc. These manifest His superiority, the central theme of Hebrews. After reviewing the rites performed by the high priest under old system in the first section of chapter 9, the author of Hebrews mentions another dissimilarity:
Hebrews 9:11 But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation;
12 and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption.
13 For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh,
14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?
15 For this reason He is the mediator of a new covenant, so that, since a death has taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were committed under the first covenant, those who have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance.
The dissimilarity with which this post is concerned is that Jesus obtained eternal redemption for those who have been called prior to His entry into the holy of holies. He offered Himself to God, a bloody sacrifice by which our consciences are cleansed so that we may on that account serve God. He made purification for sin by having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, and He did this before He sat down at God’s right hand (1:3, 10:12). All these passages used aorist participles, on which basis Hughes notes they each convey “the same emphasis on the finality and the pastness of the unique sacrifice of Calvary. Nowhere is there any mention of a sacrifice that is prolonged in some manner or continuous in the heavenly sanctuary.” Even Hebrews 8:3, which Hughes noted Roman Catholics sometimes cite as proof that Christ must sacrifice in heaven or else He would lose His status as High Priest, uses an aorist participle; that is, the meaning is rather against the idea a perpetual [Eucharistic] offering is needed.
Thus, the throne is not an altar or mercy-seat on which Jesus must sprinkle His blood or sit in order to make atonement; Jesus Himself is the propitiatory (compare Romans 3:25 to Hebrews 9:5). That He sits down in the holy of holies – unlike the high priests of old – is conclusive evidence that far from being perpetual or ongoing, His sacrifice was completed, finished, and accepted by the Father upon His death. He now only needs to wait for what He has secured by His work to be fulfilled in due time. For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified:
Aaron certainly carried the sacrificial blood into the holy of holies, but our author deliberately, avoids saying that Christ carried His own blood into the heavenly sanctuary. Even as a symbolic expression this is open to objection. There have been expositors who, pressing the analogy of the Day of Atonement beyond the limits observed by our author, have agreed that the expiatory work of Christ was not completed on the cross — not completed, indeed, until He ascended from earth and “made atonement ‘for us’ in the heavenly holy of holies by the presentation of His efficacious blood.” But while it was necessary under the old covenant for the sacrificial blood first to be shed in the court and then to be brought into the holy of holies, no such division of our Lord’s sacrifice into two phases is envisaged under the new covenant. When upon the cross He offered up His life to God as a sacrifice for His people's sin, He accomplished in reality what Aaron and his successors performed in type by the twofold act of slaying the victim and presenting its blood in the holy of holies. The title of the Anglican Article XXXI speaks rightly “of the one oblation of Christ finished upon the cross.” (F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, pg. 213)