“but into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people.” (Hebrews 9:7, ESV)
The author of Hebrews here refers to the Old Testament regulations under the law. Specifically, he writes of the high priest offering the blood of the sacrifice for “unintentional sins of the people” on the Day of Atonement. He uses the Greek, agnoema, which refers to sins committed in ignorance. In the New Testament, the word generally translated as sin is, harmartia, which literally means to miss the mark. In the context of sin, it refers to missing the mark of God’s holy standard.
This specific mention of “unintentional sins,” puzzled me because everything we do is intentional. So, I spent considerable time on this. Say, I was driving with all intention of doing the speed limit, but missed seeing a speed limit sign. I did this one night when driving at 55 miles per hour and missed the 35 mile per hour speed limit sign. Even though my intentions were correct, I still was in violation of the law.
Yet, this concept of “unintentional sins” in the Mosaic law could even go beyond this type of simple accidental oversight (Lev 4:1-5:13). It seems that what differentiates these types of sins from others is the attitude that was behind the violation. Numbers 15:22-31, sheds some further light regarding “unintentional sins.” In verses 30-31, we see the main thing that contrasts sin from the unintentional sin.
“But the person who does anything with a high hand, whether he is native or a sojourner, reviles the Lord, and that person shall be cut off from among his people. Because he has despised the word of the Lord and has broken his commandment, that person shall be utterly cut off; his iniquity shall be on him.” (Numbers 15:30–31, ESV)
In contrast to unintentional sins, those committed in ignorance, Numbers gives us three characteristics of intentional sins. First, it is something done with a “high hand,” referring to self-exaltation. Second, it “reviles the Lord,” which is to blaspheme. Last, it regards “the word of the Lord” with contempt. In short, intentional sins are those done in open rebellion to the Lord and His word.
Unintentional sins happened but not from a spirit of rebellion. The law prescribed that one who committed an unintentional sin was to offer a sacrifice and where appropriate make restitution for his or her transgression. Yet for someone who sinned in open rebellion to the Lord, the consequences were severe as seen in verses 32-36, where a man was stoned to death for violating the law of the Sabbath.
How does this principle apply to us? While we do commit sins as believers, we do not do so habitually and we are not in open rebellion to God. It is by God’s grace, that we who believe have been moved from alienation and enmity to peace with God (Col 1:21-22; James 4:4). Through the regenerative work of the Holy Spirit, every true believer has a desire to seek God and His righteousness (Titus 3:5). Thus, while true believers do sin, it is not coming from the rebellious intent of the heart. The sin of the believer is covered by the shed blood of Jesus. The sacrifice for sin in the Old Testament is a foreshadowing of the perfect sacrifice of Jesus for every believer.
Tomorrow, I will discuss some thoughts on this as it regards the high priest’s work on the Day of Atonement.