For Whom Did the OT High Priest Make Atonement? Pt. 1

Proponents of definite atonement will often appeal to Jesus’ high priestly role to support their position that Christ died only for the Church. They claim that in the OT the high priest would only make atonement and intercede for the people of God, namely, Israel. In a similar fashion, the Lord Jesus as the perfect High Priest offers himself up and makes intercession only for the elect of God, i.e., all those individuals whom the Holy Spirit baptizes into Christ so as to form his spiritual Body, the Church (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19-20; 12:12-27; 2 Corinthians 1:21-22; 5:5; Ephesians 1:4-7, 11-14; 4:30; 5:25-33; Hebrews 2:9-18; 7:23-28; Revelation 5:9-10; 7:9-17).

However, instead of this supporting their case the OT teaching on the high priest’s function actually proves the exact opposite, as we are about to now see.

Atonement for the entire nation or just for the elect?

In the first place, the high priest was required to make atonement for the whole nation of Israel, and not just for the righteous among them whom God would regenerate and set apart for eternal life (cf. Leviticus 16).

This is why we find God warning his people that anyone who failed to obey the Lord and/or humble themselves on the day that the high priest was to make atonement for the entire nation God would then cut off and/or destroy that individual:

“And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, Speak to the children of Israel, saying: In the seventh month, on the first of the month, it shall be a Sabbath for you, a remembrance of [Israel through] the shofar blast a holy occasion. You shall not perform any work of labor, and you shall offer up a fire offering to the Lord. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: But on the tenth of this seventh month, it is a day of atonement, it shall be a holy occasion for you; you shall afflict yourselves, and you shall offer up a fire offering to the Lord. You shall not perform any work on that very day, for it is a day of atonement, for you to gain atonement before the Lord, your God. For any person who will not be afflicted on that very day, shall be cut off from its people. And any person who performs any work on that very day I will destroy that person from amidst its people. You shall not perform any work. [This is] an eternal statute throughout your generations in all your dwelling places. It is a complete day of rest for you, and you shall afflict yourselves. On the ninth of the month in the evening, from evening to evening, you shall observe your rest day.” Leviticus 23:23-32 (The Complete Jewish Bible With Rashi Commentary

This shows that there were people for whom atonement was made but who could still be cut off nonetheless.

Similarly, the NT proclaims that the Lord Jesus was sent to redeem all Israel, not just the elect from among them:

“But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, ‘You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die FOR THE PEOPLE, not that THE WHOLE NATION should perish.’ He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he PROPHESIED that Jesus would die FOR THE NATION, and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.” John 11:49-52

Note the words of John carefully. Even though he was not aware of it, Caiaphas prophesied that Jesus would die in order to save the whole nation. And since all genuine prophecy is from the Holy Spirit (cf. 2 Peter 1:20-21; Numbers 11:28-29), this means that it was the Spirit of God who moved Caaiphas to proclaim that Christ would die for all the people of Israel, and not just for the elect among them.

This is further brought out by the following passage:

“And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.’” Luke 19:41-44

Jesus is weeping over the fact that Jerusalem has now left him no choice but to bring judgment upon her for failing to recognize the time of her visitation which would have resulted in her peace, not destruction.

Luke tells us elsewhere what that peace was, which had eluded Jerusalem because of her failure in recognizing the time of her visitation:

“And his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying, ‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has VISITED AND REDEEMED his people and has raised up A HORN OF SALVATION for us in the house of his servant David… And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins,’” Luke 1:67-69, 76-77

God had come in the Person of Christ to bring redemption to the entire nation by granting them the forgiveness of sins, just as the following texts confirm:

“And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth PEACE among those with whom he is pleased!’” Luke 2:8-14

“God, having raised up his servant, sent him to you first, to bless you by turning EVERY ONE OF YOU from your wickedness.” Acts 3:26

“God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.” Acts 5:31

“‘And when he had removed him, he raised up David to be their king, of whom he testified and said, ‘I have found in David the son of Jesse a man after my heart, who will do all my will.’ Of this man’s offspring God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as he promised… Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed[a] from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses. Beware, therefore, lest what is said in the Prophets should come about: “Look, you scoffers, be astounded and perish; for I am doing a work in your days, a work that you will not believe, even if one tells it to you.”’ As they went out, the people begged that these things might be told them the next Sabbath. And after the meeting of the synagogue broke up, many Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who, as they spoke with them, urged them to continue in the grace of God. The next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and began to contradict what was spoken by Paul, reviling him. And Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, ‘It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles. For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, “‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’” And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed. And the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region. But the Jews incited the devout women of high standing and the leading men of the city, stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their district. But they shook off the dust from their feet against them and went to Iconium.” Acts 13:22-23, 38-51

The Scriptures even speak of Jews that were on the verge of being destroyed for wanting to turn their backs on Christ who had sanctified them by his blood:

“For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay.’ And again, ‘The Lord will judge HIS PEOPLE.’ It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” Hebrews 10:26-31

Here the inspired author warns those Jews who were thinking of abandoning Christ that their judgment would be harsh and without mercy since their apostasy would mean that they were now blaspheming the Holy Spirit and profaning the holy blood of the Son of God that had been shed to set them apart for God.(1)

In order to avoid the plain reading of this passage some Calvinists argue that the pronoun he in the sentence, “which he was sanctified,” isn’t referring to the apostate but to Christ, whose shed blood set him apart for his priestly ministry. Reformed theologian and NT scholar Thomas R. Schreiner shows why such an interpretation is rather forced and desperate, despite the fact that he personally holds to the doctrine of Limited Atonement:

The author emphasizes the heinousness of apostasy with three phrases. First, if they sin deliberately and shun the gospel they trample under their feet the “Son of God.” “The verb recalls the trampling of the temple by the pagans in Maccabean times.” Jesus’ sonship points to his divinity and his special relationship with God, and Hebrews often designates Jesus as God’s Son (1:2-3, 5, 8; 3:6; 4:14; 5:5, 8; 6:6; 7:3, 28). Clearly those who trample Jesus under their feet reject him fully and scorn him. As L. Johnson says, “The full title [Son of God] emphasizes the shocking character of apostasy; it not only falls from grace, it mocks the giver of grace.”

Second, they consider “the blood of the covenant” as “profane” (koinon). The word “profane” refers to what is unclean in both Judaism (1 Macc 1:47, 62) and the NT (Mark 7:2, 5; Acts 10:14-28; 11:8; Rom 14:14; Rev 21:27). The author has argued throughout the letter that Jesus’ blood secures “eternal redemption” (9:12), cleanses the conscience (9:14; cf. 12:24), removes sin (9:25-26), gives access to God’s presence (10:19), and sanctifies (10:29; 13:12). It is the blood of the covenant (cf. 13:20), in the sense that Jesus’ death inaugurates and ratifies the new covenant between God and his people, securing forgiveness of sins (8:13). Those who reject Jesus, however, do not seek purification by his blood. They reject his blood as unclean, tossing it aside as one would throw a menstrual cloth into the garbage.

Third, if they reject Jesus, they insult “the Spirit of grace.” The Lord promises to “pour out a spirit of grace” on David’s house and Jerusalem in the last days so that they will acknowledge the one they pierced (Zech 12:10). The phrase “Spirit of grace” here probably means the Spirit who grants and gives grace… Again the language is remarkably strong. Those who reject the blood of Jesus do not merely sin against the Spirit. They insult and despise the Spirit. In a culture where honor and shame were so prominent, the horror of the sin is featured. The sin here is another way of speaking of blaspheming against the Holy Spirit (Matt 12:31-32; Mark 3:29; Luke 12:10) or is manifested in the resistance to the Spirit in Stephen’s hearers (Acts 7:51; cf. also Acts 5:3). The author leaves no doubt that apostasy is egregious since it involves rejecting the Son who is greater than Moses (3:1-6).

We should also note that the author speaks of the blood “by which” the readers were “sanctified” (hegiasthe). Here is powerful evidence that those addressed are truly believers, confirming what was argued in 6:4-5 for Jesus by his once-for-all offering “perfected forever those who are sanctified” (10:14). Sanctification here is definitive and positional rather than progressive. It is AWKWARD AND UNNATURAL to see a reference to Jesus in the pronoun instead of believers, for it makes little sense to say Jesus was sanctified by his own blood. Jesus is the one who sanctifies in Hebrews (2:11), not the one who is sanctified. Indeed, in chapters 10 and 13 the author clearly states three times that the death of Jesus sanctifies believers (10:10, 14; 13:12). Nor is it persuasive to say that the sanctification is not saving, comparing it to the sanctification under the old covenant (9:13), which only sanctified externally. The argument fails to persuade, for the point in Hebrews is that Jesus’ sacrifice stands in contrast to the sacrifices of the old covenant. His sacrifice is effective and truly brings sanctification. To say that his sacrifice only sanctifies externally, like the sacrifices of the old covenant, misses one of the major themes of the letter. Contrary to OT sacrifices, Jesus’ sacrifice truly cleanses the conscience. (Schreiner, Commentary on Hebrews (Biblical Theology for Christian Proclamation) [B&H Publishing, Nashville, TN 2015], pp. 326-327; bold and capital emphasis ours)

And this is how John Calvin himself explained the text:

Verse 29

29. Who has trodden under foot the Son of God, etc. There is this likeness between apostates under the Law and under the Gospel, that both perish without mercy; but the kind of death is different; for the Apostle denounces on the despisers of Christ not only the deaths of the body, but eternal perdition. And therefore he says that a sorer punishment awaits them. And he designates the desertion of Christianity by three things; for he says that thus the Son of God is trodden under foot, that his blood is counted an unholy thing, and that despite is done to the Spirit of grace. Now, it is a more heinous thing to tread under foot than to despise or reject; and the dignity of Christ is far different from that of Moses; and further, he does not simply set the Gospel in opposition to the Law, but the person of Christ and of the Holy Spirit to the person of Moses.

The blood of the covenant, etc. He enhances ingratitude by a comparison with the benefits. It is the greatest indignity to count the blood of Christ unholy, by which OUR holiness is effected; this is done by those who depart from the faith. For our faith looks not on the naked doctrine, but on the blood by which our salvation has been ratified. He calls it the blood of the covenant, because then only were the promises made sure to us when this pledge was added. But he points out the manner of this confirmation by saying that WE ARE sanctified; for the blood shed would avail us nothing, except we were sprinkled with it by the Holy Spirit; and hence come OUR expiation and sanctification. The apostle at the same time alludes to the ancient rite of sprinkling, which availed not to real sanctification, but was only its shadow or image. (185)

The Spirit of grace. He calls it the Spirit of grace from the effects produced; for it is by the Spirit and through his influence that we receive the grace offered to us in Christ. For he it is who enlightens our minds by faith, who seals the adoption of God on our hearts, who regenerates us unto newness of life, who grafts us into the body of Christ, that he may live in us and we in him. He is therefore rightly called the Spirit of grace, by whom Christ becomes ours with all his blessings. But to do despite to him, or to treat him with scorn, by whom we are endowed with so many benefits, is an impiety extremely wicked. Hence learn that all who willfully render useless his grace, by which they had been favored, act disdainfully towards the Spirit of God.

It is therefore no wonder that God so severely visits blasphemies of this kind; it is no wonder that he shows himself inexorable towards those who tread under foot Christ the Mediator, who alone reconciles us to himself; it is no wonder that he closes up the way of salvation against those who spurn the Holy Spirit, the only true guide. (186)

(185) The words “covenant,” and “sanctified,” and “unclean” or “unholy,” are derived from the old dispensation. “The blood of the covenant” was the blood shed on the cross; and the reference to it is not as sprinkled for the ratifying of the covenant, but as the blood of atonement, as “the blood of the New Testament, or rather covenant, “shed for many for the remission of sins,” Matthew 26:28. Then “sanctified” HAS THE SAME MEANING HERE AS IN Hebrews 10:10 and in Hebrews 2:11, expiated or atoned for; “by which he has expiated.” HE WHO PROFESSES the Christian faith, PROFESSES TO BELIEVE IN the atoning sacrifice of Christ, that Christ shed his blood for many for the remission of sins. As to “unholy,” or rather unclean, such was the blood of a malefactor or impostor, and as such Christ was counted by the Jews and by every Jew who returned to Judaism. — Ed.

(186) Most strangely does Schleusner paraphrase this clause, “contumaciously repudiating the divine favor.” The case here contemplated is the same with that in Hebrews 6:4. The Holy Spirit is there so distinctly mentioned that it is impossible to turn or change the plain meaning of the passage; and to be “partakers of the Holy Spirit” was no doubt to be in that age. Here he is mentioned only as the holy Spirit of grace, i.e., the bestower of grace, or it may be taken as meaning “the gracious” or benevolent “Spirit;” as “God of all grace” in 1 Peter 5:10, may mean either the author and giver of every grace, or the most gracious God, though the former meaning is most consistent with the context. (Calvin’s Commentary on the Bible (John Calvin), Chapter 10; bold and capital emphasis mine)

Calvin clearly identified the one sanctified by the blood as those individuals whom the Lord set apart, not to Christ himself. This is brought clearly by his statement that v. 29 has the meaning as the following passages, both of which identify the one being set apart as the believers, not Christ:

“For he who sanctifies and those WHO ARE sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers,” Hebrews 2:11

“And by that will WE have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” Hebrews 10:10

Thus, for Calvin this passage refers to the individual who been set apart by Christ’s shed blood through his profession of faith in Jesus, but who has now turned away and become an apostate.

With the foregoing in perspective we are ready to move on to the second part of our discussion: For Whom Did the OT High Priest Make Atonement? Pt. 2.


(1) The inspired writer cites the following OT passage as a warning to those Jews who were thinking of apostatizing:

“Vengeance is poised with Me, and it will pay at the time their foot stumbles. For the appointed day of their reckoning is near, and what is destined for them hastens. When the Lord will judge His people, and will reconsider His servants, when He sees that the power is increasing, and none is controlled or strengthened.” Deuteronomy 32:35-36 (The Complete Jewish Bible With Rashi Commentary; bold emphasis ours)

This reinforces the fact that these Jews were individuals whom Christ died for in order to make them a part of the new covenant community known as the church. After all, it makes no sense to cite a passage where God threatens that he will punish his people for failing to obey him, if these Jews weren’t actually a part of the very people whom Christ had set apart by his shed blood for the express purpose of making them his very own cherished possession. This is similar to what the blessed Apostle Paul wrote in his epistle to Titus:

“waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” Titus 2:13-14

6 thoughts on “For Whom Did the OT High Priest Make Atonement? Pt. 1

  1. That last paragraph by Schreiner concisely states what I wrote in two blog posts on the same subject in my 2008 series on “Perseverance of The Saints” (parts 7 and 8). I guess he must have been reading my blogs to research his commentary. 😉


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