Mary at the Mercy Seat

But Mary stood without at the sepulchre weeping: and as she wept, she stooped down, and looked into the sepulchre, And seeth two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain.
John 20:11-12

The Mary in the title and in the Scripture quoted above is Mary Magdalene. Mark and Luke identify her as a woman out of whom Jesus had cast seven demons (Mark 16:9; Luke 8:2). If you know something about the mercy seat, you might know that it was something in the tabernacle, and later in the temple after it was built. Not only that, but it was inside the Holy of Holies or Most Holy Place where only the high priest could go and that only once a year (Hebrews 9:7; Leviticus 16). So why do I in my title place Mary at the mercy seat?

A Description of the Mercy Seat

In Exodus 25:17-21, God gives Moses instructions concerning how the mercy seat is to be made. These verses give us a good description of the mercy seat.

And thou shalt make a mercy seat of pure gold: two cubits and a half shall be the length thereof, and a cubit and a half the breadth thereof. And thou shalt make two cherubims of gold, of beaten work shalt thou make them, in the two ends of the mercy seat. And make one cherub on the one end, and the other cherub on the other end: even of the mercy seat shall ye make the cherubims on the two ends thereof. And the cherubims shall stretch forth their wings on high, covering the mercy seat with their wings, and their faces shall look one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubims be. And thou shalt put the mercy seat above upon the ark; and in the ark thou shalt put the testimony that I shall give thee.

Briefly, then, the ark of the covenant was a special container in which was what this passage in Exodus calls the “testimony.” We know from other Scriptures that this “testimony” was the two tables of stone on which the Ten Commandments were written (1 Kings 8:9; Deuteronomy 10). These tables of stone–the Ten Commandments–were central to the Old Covenant that God made with the children of Israel (Deuteronomy 9:9-11). Thus, the ark containing the tables of the covenant is called the ark of the covenant (Deuteronomy 31:26). Also, in or beside the ark (there is a question over what the exact position was) was “the golden pot that had manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded” (Hebrews 9:4).

The covering of the ark is the mercy seat. As the passage from Exodus 25 quoted above describes, the mercy seat had two cherubims or angels, one on each side of the seat with their faces always toward the mercy seat.

In Leviticus 16:15, God instructs that, once a year on the day of atonement, the high priest is to “kill the goat of the sin offering, that is for the people, and bring his blood within the vail, and do with that blood as he did with the blood of the bullock, and sprinkle it upon the mercy seat, and before the mercy seat.” Keep in mind the mercy seat, the cherubims, the pot of manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded. I will mention them again.

Mary…Seeth Two Angels

Now, let’s take another look at John 20. The passage quoted at the beginning of the article starts with verse 11, so I’ll give some context leading up to it. Mary Magdalene (and the other women) go to Jesus’ tomb very early on the first day of the week. They see that the stone that covered the opening was rolled away. Mary (and the other women) run and tell Simon Peter and John (referred to as “the other disciple whom Jesus loved”) that someone has taken Jesus’ body. Peter and John run to the tomb. John arrives first, stoops down outside the tomb, looks and sees (blepoi–see) the linen bandages that had been used to wrap Jesus’ body, but waits to go in. Peter arrives after John, and he goes straight into the tomb. He sees and considers (theōrei–see and mentally consider) the linen wrappings and the handkerchief that was used to wrap Jesus’ head encoiled separately. Then John goes in, he sees and perceives (eiden–see and perceive) what has happened, and he believes. Then Peter and John leave. Interestingly, God chose not to reveal the angels to them.

But, Mary had followed them back to the tomb, so, as we now see in verse 11, she is left standing outside weeping aloud. She now stoops down into the tomb (the words “and looked” in the King James Version do not correspond to any Greek words in this verse). In the tomb, she sees and considers (theōrei) two angels sitting, “the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain.” Two angels, one at each side, is the arrangement of the mercy seat.

The Hilastērion

Hebrews 9:5 is a New Testament reference to the mercy seat. It says, “And over it [the ark with the Ten Commandments–the tables of the Old Covenant–inside] the cherubims of glory shadowing the mercyseat; of which we cannot now speak particularly.” The word translated “mercy seat” in this verse is hilastērion. This word is also found in Romans 3:25, where it is translated “propitiation.” Let’s look at Romans 3:24-25: “Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation [hilastērion] through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God.” From these verses, it is clear that the hilastērion is Jesus Christ. Young’s Literal Translation translates these verses this way: “Being declared righteous freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God did set forth a mercy seat [hilastērion], through the faith in his blood, for the shewing forth of His righteousness, because of the passing over of the bygone sins in the forbearance of God.”
With this information, I believe it is safe to say that the mercy seat was a picture of the sacrificed Jesus Christ, the propitiation for the sins of His people. Jesus Christ was the true mercy seat. Now, let’s put this together with John 20.