What does the ark of the covenant teach us about grace? The ark was the Jews’ most cherished possession since it carried the tangible presence of God on earth. The ark represented two things that must always be kept in balance, God’s holiness and God’s mercy.
The ark was a box built of acacia wood and it was overlaid with gold. According to Exodus 25:10, the ark was approximately 3.75 feet long, 2.25 feet wide, 2.25 feet high. Hidden within the box was the stone tables of the Ten Commandments—the symbol of God’s Law.
God’s Law is a manifestation of God’s character of holiness. Because God loves righteousness, holiness, and truth, the Law is perfect, holy, and just. All who break the Law must be judged as law-breakers in accordance with the Law. Breaking the Law of God is, of course, the essence of sin. While God wants to bless you, He cannot bless sin. Sin must be punished because the Law has been broken. God’s holy character demands justice.
The cover of the Ark reveals a second element of God’s character. Moses received God’s instructions: “…make the Ark’s cover, the place of atonement, out of pure gold. It must be 3.75 feet long and 2.25 feet wide” (Exodus 25:17 NLT). This lid is known as the “Place of Atonement” or “The Mercy Seat.”
During Old Testament times, once each year, the high priest poured the blood of a goat over this mercy seat (Leviticus 16:15). The goat was a substitute for all the people of Israel, and in a ceremony, the Israelites would symbolically place their sins on the goat. The goat was then killed as a sacrifice for the sins of the people. However, there was a problem: this sacrifice was only temporarily effective, and, year after year, the death of another goat was needed to atone for the fresh sins of the Israelites.
God wanted to permanently and effectively deal with the issue of sin. So He sent Jesus Christ, the perfect sacrifice, to die once and for all for the sins of humankind (Hebrews 9:28). When Jesus died on the cross, He paid the price for your sin and my sin. Christ’s death and resurrection is evidence of God’s mercy.
Under the New Covenant, Jesus becomes our mercy seat.Romans 3:25-26 says, “whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed,to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” The word “propitiation” is the Greek word hilasterion, a word that can also be translated as “mercy seat.”
Now for the best news of all: God says to you, “…I will meet with you, and I will speak with you from above the mercy seat” (Exodus 25:22). God wants to speak to you, not where the Law is kept, not where judgment is meted out, but in a place of mercy!
Inside the box there is judgment. But notice, the mercy seat is exactly the same size as the ark. Because of Christ, God’s need for judgment is completely covered by God’s mercy. Outside the box, Jesus poured His blood on the mercy seat of heaven so that all can be saved.
Many preachers stay inside the box. They preach from a place of judgment and condemnation. People become depressed trying to follow an endless list of religious rules. God wants us to think outside the box. All of God’s need for judgment was poured out on Jesus at the cross. God is not judging our nation; God is smiling upon us. Preachers, listen to me. God is not inside the box. He is waiting to meet us at the place of mercy, forgiveness, and love. We should preach mercy, not Law.
Without mercy, no human being could go to heaven. If we try to approach God from inside the box (on the basis of the Law), we would be judged and condemned to an eternity separated from God. But, God does not want to meet us at the Law; He desires to meet us at the mercy seat, the place of atonement and forgiveness where “mercy triumphs over judgment!” (James 2:13).
This is the difference between religion and a relationship with God. Religion tries to force people to stay inside the box. Religion provides a list of rules and regulations. Religion is about the Law. You can experience a relationship with God, not based on rules, but based on the mercy that His grace and love have provided.
Think outside the box
Jesus told a parable about two men who went to the temple to pray (Luke 18:9-14). One was a Pharisee, a religious leader. The second was a tax collector. The Pharisee began to pray, “God, I thank You that I am not like other men, robbers, evildoers, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I have.”
But the tax collector stood in the corner. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Jesus said, “I tell you that the tax collector, rather than the Pharisee, went home justified before God.”
The Pharisee approached God from within the box (based on Law), but the tax collector approached God at the place of mercy. The tax collector was the one made righteous.
Before we were saved we were dead in sin. “But because of His great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions…” (Ephesians 2:4-5). When you die, what do they bury you in? A box. A coffin. But Jesus through His mercy made us alive. He set us free from the box. It’s time to think outside the box!