37 – Hebrews 9:15-22: Propitiation

Hebrews 9:15-22

“Christ is the Mediator of an entirely new covenant. He suffered death to pay the ransom for sins committed under the first covenant. This freed people to receive their promised everlasting inheritance. For a last will and testament to be effectual, it is necessary that the death of the one who made it be verified. A covenant is valid only after one is deceased: it is ineffectual as long as the testator is living. Likewise, the first covenant was not inaugurated without the shedding of blood. For after Moses announced all the regulations of the Law to the people, he took the blood of slain calves and goats, along with water, red wool with hyssop, and sprinkled both the scroll and the people, saying, “This is the blood which ratifies the covenant God has commanded you to keep”. In the same manner, he also sprinkled the blood upon the tabernacle and all the sacred vessels used in the ministry. Indeed, in obedience to the Law, nearly all things are purified with blood, for unless it is shed, forgiveness of sins cannot be obtained.”    (paraphrased)

v. 15
The writer has already highlighted the inadequacies of atonement under the first covenant. He has also proven a superior covenant must be established by a superior sacrifice. In this passage, he seeks to show why Christ’s propitious act must be ratified by death. Jesus is the only One qualified to mediate this incredible arrangement, for His sacrifice has provided redemption for everyone. “For this cause” directs our thinking to the previous verse, where we see Christ as the One who purges the conscience. But it also directs us toward the future, for Christ proactively mediates and arbitrates the entire New Testament era. 

Those who lived before Jesus’ sacrifice were saved, not by rituals, but through the Messiah’s future redemptive work. Forgiveness via animal sacrifices was prospective, anticipating what the Son of God would accomplish. However, His atonement is retroactive, effectual for all who put faith in His blood (Rev. 1:5). In other words, Believers under the old covenant were saved by looking forward to Messiah’s work as High Priest. Believers since the time of Christ look back to His expiation. Prior to Jesus’ death and resurrection, salvation was obtained “on credit.” This is why Jesus is called the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8).

God has the same plan for everyone (Acts 15:11). Believers in all dispensations benefit from the eternal redemption He procured for us. As the Old Covenant transitioned into the New, the writer explains that even sins committed under the former covenant were atoned for on Calvary. Paul plainly told the people in the synagogue at Antioch they “could not be justified by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:39). Old Testament people were dependent upon the blood Christ would one day shed on Calvary (Rom. 3:25).

The Greek word diatheke can be translated either “testament” or “covenant.” While these terms are not synonymous, they are closely related. The affinity between these two words is brought into sharp focus in this verse. Diatheke occurs 33 times in the New Testament – and more than half of these are found in the book of Hebrews. In order to understand why the writer has translated the word covenant in the sense of testament here, one must study both the context and the era in which it was used.

The writer thinks in Greek, not English. Word plays (double-meanings) were a favorite literary device of Alexandrian scholars. He uses the word in a rhetorical statement, rather than in a theological argument. Indeed, no other term could be used to explain both the covenantal and testamental aspects of Jesus’ blood sacrifice. By the time the book of Hebrews was written, diatheke was commonly utilized to refer to one’s last will and testament. Such contractual agreements were made in order to distribute and dispose of property. While diatheke is usually employed in the sense of a covenant, it is blended with the concept of a testament in an attempt to explain the uniqueness of this particular agreement. Christ’s new covenant is the only one in world history dependent upon the death and resurrection of the One who established it. His was a pact between men and their Maker; therefore it could not conform to human social laws regarding covenants. It is only within the context of His mediation these two terms are combined.

One who writes a will has the option to change it prior to their demise. Because only the final draft of a terminal agreement is honored, it is often called a “last will and testament.” However, God never alters His terms. Like human wills which become effective when the testator has died, this is also true of the New Testament which Jesus inaugurated. But while such wills among mortal men are ineffectual until the testator dies, Jesus arose, allowing us the opportunity to become joint heirs with Him. His resurrection proves His covenant is of a very different nature than the one established on Sinai. All the riches of heaven are bequeathed to those who love Him, for He is “the appointed heir of all things” (1:2).

Even the best analogies prove to have flaws when applied to the incalculable value of Christ’s vicarious work. No human testator redeems people from their sins, is resurrected, and promises them an everlasting inheritance. The testament Christ established differs in another unique way. While human wills usually leave funds and possessions to heirs unconditionally, Christ demands obedience to His laws. His teachings in the Gospels spell out His specific stipulations in great detail. 

Whereas animal sacrifices procured a temporal redemption, Christ’s sacrifice has purchased eternal redemption. As the new covenant is everlasting, so is the inheritance it promises. It will endure as long as heaven exists. “They who are called” includes all Believers, regardless of age, gender, or nationality.

vv. 16-18
It is universally understood that a testator must be deceased before a testament goes into effect. Humanly speaking, no estate or inheritance can be transferred until the testator’s death activates it. Only a Mediator who is both human and divine could represent both parties of such a covenant. Christ was the sole individual who could perfectly execute His Father’s will – and He died to inaugurate it. He sent the Holy Spirit to empower Believers to honor the terms ten days after His ascension.

The principle of covenant ratification through blood was firmly established in Israel. It was therefore imperative the new covenant be sealed in blood, as it was at Sinai. Jesus said from the cross, “It is finished.” The word “finished” is tetelesai, a legal term often used concerning the full payment of a promissory note. The cross might be pictured as “the receipt Jesus signed” to cancel the debt of sin and inaugurate the blessings of the new dispensation. His death released the inheritance to all His heirs in every era.

vv. 19-21
To prove his point concerning blood sprinkling, the writer borrows freely from the activities on the Day of Atonement and other occasions. But in this passage he does not base his remarks solely upon events in Exodus 24. These verses serve as a historical summation of the ritual sanctification connected with Levitical worship. Because blood was sprinkled upon Aaron and his sons on numerous occasions, it not without precedent the writer freely alludes to the dedication of the tabernacle with blood. Ministry vessels needed ceremonial cleansing as well, for they were handled by sinful human beings.

The writer first takes us back to Sinai where the covenant was initially inaugurated. Moses read the terms of the covenant, the people consented to obey, and the covenant was then affirmed by blood sprinkling. By reading the stipulations of the law, the people understood the rewards for obedience and the consequences of disobedience. Moses’ actions, in conjunction with the people’s pledge to obey, ratified the covenant Jehovah made with them (Ex. 24:3-8). The writer’s purpose is to prove the necessity of blood shedding in order to remove sins, rather than provide specific details regarding these ceremonies.

While Exodus 24 does not mention the use of water, wool, and hyssop, nothing suggests these things were not utilized on that occasion. Water was added to prevent coagulation and thin the blood for sprinkling (Ex. 12:22). It is logical to assume a small batch of hyssop would be bound with a red woolen cord to a cedar stick and used to disperse the blood (Lev. 14:4-6, 51). Some see a correlation between the water and blood Moses sprinkled and the water and blood that flowed from Jesus’ side on Calvary (Jn. 19:34). There may be some merit to this view, for Peter refers to “the sprinkled blood of Jesus” (I Pet. 1:2).

Although Exodus is silent concerning the sprinkling of the book with blood, Jewish tradition affirms this was the case. Moses could not have dispersed blood upon three million people. He symbolically covered all of them by sprinkling those in his immediate vicinity. It was this blood that connected the people with the book. Jehovah’s laws were thereby “joined” by blood to those who promised to obey them. Blood symbolized the need for atonement for violating His precepts. God demands that Believers in every dispensation obey His written Word. Blood was the visible confirmatory sign of the first testament. It represented the sacrificial blood of the One who would one day establish the supreme covenant between God and all Believers.

v. 22
The writer’s focus concerns expiation through blood sacrifice, rather than the ceremonialism surrounding the dedication of earthly tabernacles, furnishings, and vessels. The phrase is better translated, “One might almost say that all things were purified with blood.” He is careful to use the term almost, for not everything was ceremonially cleansed by blood. Because it was the general rule, it could be said that nearly everything was affected by the purification rituals. There were some exceptions. For example:

<>Washing with water was prescribed for defiled persons or clothing (Lev. 22:6; Ex. 19:10).

<>Priests frequently washed their hands in the laver for purification (Ex. 30:17-21).

<>Atonement was made after the destruction of Korah by means of incense (Num. 16:46).

<>Certain objects captured in warfare were purified by fire (Num. 31:21-23).

External cleansing was accomplished by various means, but blood was essential for propitiation. Certain objects may be purified without the use of blood, but remission of sins is possible only by a sacrificial death (Lev. 17:11). Redemption is best summarized in Jesus’ own words, “This is My blood of the New Testament which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Mt. 26:28). Centuries of ritual sacrifice graphically demonstrate that the terrible reality of sin demanded a radical cure. No sin can be forgiven except through Jesus Christ, “in whom we have redemption through His blood – even the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:14).


Hebrews 9:15-22

1. What does Paul call new in II Corinthians 3:6?

2. According to Luke 22:20, what does Jesus say the communion cup symbolizes?

3. According to Levitical 8:30, what was sprinkled on Aaron and his sons?

4. What is said regarding the altar in II Chronicles 29:22?

5. Read Colossians 1:14 and Ephesians 1:7.  According to these verses, what has procured our redemption?
6. According to Acts 13:39, what cannot procure redemption?

7. In Exodus 24:7, the people promised to do all the Lord had commanded. In effect, they said “I do.” Similarly, a bride and groom promise to obey their weddings vows. Read Malachi 2:14-16, and list ways a man can express love to his wife.

Maxim of the Moment

I’d rather be a failure at something I love than a success at something I hate. - George Burns