The Day of Atonement
Topic: Law Passage: Leviticus 16:1–16:34
This morning we will be dealing with a more manageable length of text than we have in recent weeks. Therefore, I would like for us to begin by reading the entire 16th chapter of Leviticus. Please follow along in your copy of the Scriptures. If you don’t have a Bible with you, one may be found beneath the seat in front of you. Today’s passage begins on page 95. The Word of God says...
1 The LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they drew near before the LORD and died, 2 and the LORD said to Moses, “Tell Aaron your brother not to come at any time into the Holy Place inside the veil, before the mercy seat that is on the ark, so that he may not die. For I will appear in the cloud over the mercy seat. 3 But in this way Aaron shall come into the Holy Place: with a bull from the herd for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. 4 He shall put on the holy linen coat and shall have the linen undergarment on his body, and he shall tie the linen sash around his waist; and wear the linen turban; these are the holy garments. He shall bathe his body in water and put them on. 5 And he shall take from the congregation of the people of Israel two male goats for a sin offering, and one ram for a burnt offering.
6 “Aaron shall offer the bull as a sin offering for himself and shall make atonement for himself and for his house. 7 Then he shall take the two goats and set them before the LORD at the entrance of the tent of meeting. 8 And Aaron shall cast lots over the two goats, one lot for the LORD and the other lot for Azazel. 9 And Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the LORD and use it as a sin offering, 10 but the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the LORD to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel.
11 “Aaron shall present the bull as a sin offering for himself, and shall make atonement for himself and for his house. He shall kill the bull as a sin offering for himself. 12 And he shall take a censer full of coals of fire from the altar before the LORD, and two handfuls of sweet incense beaten small, and he shall bring it inside the veil 13 and put the incense on the fire before the LORD, that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy seat that is over the testimony, so that he does not die. 14 And he shall take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger on the front of the mercy seat on the east side, and in front of the mercy seat he shall sprinkle some of the blood with his finger seven times.
15 “Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering that is for the people and bring its blood inside the veil and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, sprinkling it over the mercy seat and in front of the mercy seat. 16 Thus he shall make atonement for the Holy Place because of the uncleanness of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins. And so he shall do for the tent of meeting, which dwells with them in the midst of their uncleanness. 17 No one may be in the tent of meeting from the time he enters to make atonement in the Holy Place until he comes out and has made atonement for himself and for his house and for all the assembly of Israel. 18 Then he shall go out to the altar that is before the LORD and make atonement for it, and shall take some of the blood of the goat, and put it on the horns of the altar all around. 19 And he shall sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times, and cleanse it and consecrate it from the uncleanness of the people of Israel.
20 “And when he has made an end of atoning for the Holy Place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat. 21 And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. 22 The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness.
22 “Then Aaron shall come into the tent of meeting and shall take off the linen garments that he put on when he went into the Holy Place and shall leave them there. 24 And he shall bathe his body in water in a holy place and put on his garments and come out and offer his burnt offering and the burnt offering of the people and make atonement for himself and for the people. 25 And the fat of the sin offering he shall burn on the altar. 26 And he who lets the goat go to Azazel shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward he may come into the camp. 27 And the bull for the sin offering and the goat for the sin offering, whose blood was brought in to make atonement in the Holy Place shall be carried outside the camp. Their skin and their flesh and their dung shall be burned up with fire. 28 And he who burns them shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward he may come into the camp.
29 “And it shall be a statute to you forever that in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict yourselves and shall do no work, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you. 30 For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you. You shall be clean before the LORD from all your sins. 31 It is a Sabbath of solemn rest to you, and you shall afflict yourselves; it is a statute forever. 32 And the priest who is anointed and consecrated as priest in his father’s place shall make atonement, wearing the holy linen garments. 33 He shall make atonement for the holy sanctuary, and he shall make atonement for the tent of meeting and for the altar, and he shall make atonement for the priests and for all the people of the assembly. 34 And this shall be a statute forever for you, that atonement may be made for the people of Israel once in the year because of all their sins.” And Aaron did as the LORD commanded Moses.
(Prayer) Father, this is Your Word. I pray that we will approach it with honor and respect, and that Your holy and gracious character would be revealed. Amen.
Holidays are special times for us all. Most of us look forward to them with eager anticipation, not simply because we get a day off from work or from school, but because of the significance those days hold for us. Depending on your circumstances and for various reasons, some are more special to you than others. From time to time we need to be reminded that our word “holiday” comes from an Old English term meaning “holy day.” In earlier times, those special times were far more “holy” than they are for us now.
As we shall see when we get to Leviticus 23, there were originally seven “holy days” or feasts prescribed by God in the Hebrew calendar. These special times were not just Jewish “holidays” in the contemporary sense of the word. It was at these appointed times when the worshiping community would gather together for “holy” purposes. The timing of the feasts had been carefully orchestrated by God Himself. Collectively they told a story that depicted both the history and the future of the Lord’s people.
This morning we are going to look at only one of those “holy days,” the most “holy” and sacred of them all...the Day of Atonement. We’ll be considering the preparations for that day, the procedures that were followed in commemorating it, and the Lord’s prescription for observing it every year. First,
The Preparation for the Day (verses 1-10)
This chapter begins by taking us back to chapter 10(:1-3) and the untimely deaths of Aaron’s two sons, Nadab and Abihu. There we learned that they were struck dead because they dared to offer “unauthorized fire before the LORD.” At the time we looked at it, we admitted that we could not say for certain what that expression meant. Within this section, however, we are given more information. In verse 2 the Lord tells Moses to instruct Aaron, the high priest, “not to come at any time into the Holy Place inside the veil, before the mercy seat that is on the ark, so that he may not die. I will appear in the cloud over the mercy seat.”
The phrase “at any time” is understood to mean “at any time he might choose to do so.” Not even the high priest was able to just “barge into” God’s presence unannounced or without being invited. Apparently, this is what Aaron’s sons had done. Back in chapter 10, verse 2, we read that “fire came out from before the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD.” If we have learned anything at all from the first fifteen chapters of Leviticus, it is that ritual purification was required if one was to draw near to God. Man’s sin was so pervasive that he required daily cleansing. But not even that was sufficient to remove the incessant waywardness of men’s hearts.
Aaron must take precaution to protect himself and not enter into the inner sanctuary—“inside the veil”—where the presence of the Lord dwelt. Although the Bible does not confirm, Jewish legend says that Aaron was fitted with a rope around his waist and legs when he entered the “Holy of Holies.” That way, if the wrath of God were to flare up against him and he died on the spot, the priests in the outer room could pull his body out.
Beginning with verse 3, the Lord reveals the precise nature by which the high priest must prepare himself in anticipation of entering into the Lord’s presence. This included the selection of a bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering, both sacrificed on his own behalf. And verse 5 adds that he would also take a pair of male goats and another ram to offer on behalf of the congregation. You will, of course, remember from the earlier chapters in the book that these animals were to be “umblemished” or “without defect.”
In addition, the high priest was instructed to wear special vestments or clothing for the ceremony...a shirt, shorts, sash, and turban, all made of linen. This was a simpler, less flamboyant manner of dress from what he typically wore in the performance of his priestly duties, and likely symbolized that in the presence of God even the high priest was stripped of all earthly honor. In other words, he approached the Lord as a servant.
The outline of the ceremony for the Day of Atonement is given in verses 6 through 10. Four main events summarized the day’s events. In verse 6, Aaron was to “offer the bull as a sin offering for himself and...make atonement for himself and for his house.” The phrase, “his house,” in all probability had specific reference to his sons, the “assistant priests,” if you will. Next, in verses 7 and 8, he would cast lots to decide which of the two goats would be sacrificed as a sin offering for the people, and which would be sent alive into the wilderness. Then in verse 9, the goat for the sin offering would be sacrificed. And finally in verse 10, the “scapegoat” (as most translations render it) would be dispatched into the wilderness.
The term “Azazel,” found in verses 8 through 10, has three possible interpretations. It has been taken to refer to either 1) a remote and deserted place to which the goat would be taken and released, 2) the name of a demon or evil spirit living in the wilderness, or 3) more likely, one who bears the blame of others...that is, a “scapegoat.” This last meaning is preferred because it more clearly conveys the idea of substitution, which is critical if we are to understand the nature of an atoning sacrifice.
With those instructions in place, the ceremony would be carried out in the manner described in verses 11 through 28.
The Procedure of the Day (verses 11-28)
...would begin with the sin offering presented on behalf of Aaron and the priests. There are a number of similarities found here with the ceremonial ritual that we saw with the sin offering in chapter 4. The main difference on this occasion was that this time the blood would be taken into the innermost sanctuary and sprinkled on the “mercy seat” which sat atop the Ark of the Covenant.
Entry into the “Holy of Holies” was fraught with danger. To protect himself from the wrath of a holy God, the high priest was to prepare “a censer full of coals” taken from the altar of burnt offering and combine it with “two handfuls of sweet incense beaten small.” The smoke of the incense was to “cover the mercy seat” so that the high priest would not be killed, as had Aaron’s sons. It is believed that the purpose of the incense-smoke was to create a screen which would prevent the high priest from gazing upon God’s holy presence. What frightening imagery this creates for us, especially at those times when we are tempted to think of God in any way less than His holy character demands.
The two goats would then stand before the high priest, one on the right and the other on the left. Lots were then cast in order to determine which would be sacrificed and which would be sent away. The goat to be sacrificed was for the purpose of “making atonement” for the high priest, the other priests, and “for all the assembly of Israel.” It is important to see that not only the high priest but also the place of worship itself must be cleansed “because of (as verse 16 declares) the uncleanness of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins.” As we have already noted in our study, the worship of a holy God demands a pure clergy and a pure sanctuary. We all do well to remember that whenever we gather for our times of corporate worship. We are entering into the presence of a pure and holy God.
Once the slain goat had been sacrificed and atonement made, the other goat would then be brought forth. Verses 21and 22 tell us that Aaron “shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness.”
There is a great deal of symbolism to be found here. The ceremony depicts the removal of sins from the people and deposits them in a desert place. There are various interpretations of the meanings of what is being described. By laying both hands on the scapegoat—in contrast to the laying on of only one hand in the previous offerings (cf. Leviticus 1:4, et al)—complete identification is made with the animal, which served as a “substitute” for the people. By being released into “a remote area” and being let “go free in the wilderness,” the obvious point was that sin was being exterminated from Israel. The words of David found in Psalm 103(:12) clearly come to mind: “As far as the east in from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.” One can only imagine the sense of relief and celebration on the part of the people with the enactment of this scene.
At the same time, it was vitally important that the camp and the sanctuary not become immediately recontaminated. Verses 23 through 28, therefore, serve to remind all the participants to wash before resuming their normal activities. Aaron was to remove his special linen garments, wash himself, and put on his high priestly clothes. Attired again in this way, he would offer the rams as burnt offerings on behalf of himself and the nation. These burnt offerings expressed the rekindled commitment of the priests and the people to the Lord. All of these last steps would continue to reflect the substitutionary aspect of the Day of Atonement, as well as removing any residual effects of the purification process.
The final verses of this chapter have to do with...
The Perpetuation of the Day (verses 29-34)
Up to this point the instructions have almost exclusively dealt with what the high priest and his associates were to do on this holy day. And yet their duties were for—or on behalf of—the entire nation. It is, therefore, not surprising that the people also had responsibilities to fulfill on every Day of Atonement. In verses 29 and 30, the Lord commanded, “And it shall be a statute to you forever that in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict yourselves and shall do no work, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you. For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you. You shall be clean before the LORD from all your sins.”
The phrase “a statute forever” appears three times in these six verses, emphasizing the importance of everyone fulfilling their obligation to obey the Lord’s ordinance. It would be a “permanent rule” for every member of the covenant community to commemorate the Day of Atonement. Even in our day, everyone—not just the ones leading the service—is called to prepare himself to draw near to God. The people were to “afflict” themselves by “do(ing) no work” for the purpose of devoting themselves wholeheartedly to the sacredness of that day. It is quite likely that a number of “spiritual disciplines” would have been involved. David, for example, wrote in Psalm 35(:13), “I wore sackcloth; I afflicted myself with fasting; I prayed with head bowed on my chest.” In short, it was to be a “holy” day.
However elaborate the ceremonies enacted by the high priest in order to atone for sin might be, by themselves they were insufficient. In order for them to be effective, the whole nation—Israelites and foreigners alike, must demonstrate true repentance before the Lord.
Lest we overlook the obvious, let us bear in mind that the Day of Atonement occurred but one day every year. All of these intricate preparations and procedures are provided in order to illustrate for us a greater point that will be made clearer in 9th chapter of Hebrews. There additional detail that is not fully given in our passage is provided. Permit me to read at length selective portions of that chapter in order to help us visualize and conceptualize the significance of Leviticus 16 for us today. Try to envision what you have already heard this morning as you listen to these words:
“Now even the first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly place of holiness. For a tent was prepared, the first section, in which were the lampstand and the table and the bread of the Presence. It is called the Holy Place. Behind the second curtain was a second section called the Most Holy Place, having the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, in which was a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron’s staff that budded, and the tablets of the covenant. Above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these things we cannot now speak in detail.
“These preparations having thus been made, the priests go regularly into the first section, performing their ritual duties, 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. By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing...but when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come...he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls...sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (Hebrews 9:1-14).
How can you and I, as members of His covenant community today, not respond with praise?
Because it is considered the most sacred day of all of the Hebrew “holy days,” the Day of Atonement (or “Yom Kippur,” as it is known to our Jewish friends) is frequently referred to by them simply as “the Day.” As we saw in verse 29, it falls each year “in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month,” which is named “Tishri.” In a little more than three weeks, Jews from all around the world will be gathering in places of worship to commemorate the Day of Atonement beginning at sunset on October 11 and ending twenty-for hours later.
Contemporary celebrations deviate significantly from those that we find in Leviticus 16. That is largely due to the influence of a first-century rabbi, who encouraged Jewish people to abandon atonement through blood sacrifices and to seek it instead through good works. In more orthodox circles, the Yom Kippur ceremony still involves the killing of an innocent animal, but typically today that animal is a chicken rather than a bull, ram, or goat.
How sad that those who continue to commemorate the Day of Atonement do not recognize that the full and final offering for sin has already been made through Jesus Christ’s atoning sacrifice of Himself. How close many of our Jewish friends are to their understanding of the Gospel, and yet how very far they are away. I recently came across these words, which at times are spoken in the annual Yom Kippur rituals: “Our righteous Messiah is departed from us, horror hath seized us, and we have none to justify us.” Such words express sorrow rather than hope. Oh, that those who are still waiting for the Messiah’s arrival might recognize that He has come, has fulfilled His atoning work, and is soon to come a second time. Oh, that they may yet recognize “Yeshua Hamishiach”—“Jesus their Messiah” before it is too late.
But what is just as sad and much more personal is that many of us who are not Jewish have also not yet met the One who has given His life in order to atone for our sins. A couple of years ago when we were studying our way through the Letter to the Hebrews, someone remarked to me that Hebrews was the New Testament commentary on the Book of Leviticus. That is true. But we might just as easily invert that thought and recognize that Leviticus is foundational to understanding Hebrews...as well as much of the New Testament.
Laboring through this difficult book has reminded us of the holiness of God and His demand for holiness on the part of those who are called by His name. Unless we keep that truth clearly before us, we will tend to minimize what the Lord Jesus accomplished for your sake and mine when He yielded up His sinless life as the full and final atonement for sin.
It has been pointed out by many that the atonement is “the center of gravity for the Christian life.” To comprehend that, we need to consider the many benefits that have been provided by the death of Jesus for those who have turned from sin and entrusted themselves to Him. I’ll mention just four of them this morning as we bring this message to a conclusion. There is no intended order in the way I present them. Each occurs at the moment we turn from our sin and lay claim to Christ’s atoning sacrifice on our behalf.
The first of the benefits of the atonement is reconciliation. To “reconcile” means “to bring together again two alienated parties.” Reconciliation replaces hostility and enmity with goodwill and peace. In Isaiah 59:2, we are told that “your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear.” The gap separating God’s holiness and our lack of holiness has been bridged by the atoning sacrifice of our Savior. Ephesians 2:13 expresses it this way: “You who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” Praise God, the believer is no longer an enemy of God. Now for the believing sinner there is access into the very presence of God.
Then there is redemption. To “redeem” means “to purchase freedom through the payment of the required price.” Before the cross we were all slaves to sin. As we recently saw in our study of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus Himself explained and demonstrated the redemptive implications of His atoning work, saying, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Paul added to this thought when he very clearly stated in Galatians 4(:4 and 5) that Christ came “to redeem those who were under law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”
Another benefit of the atonement is justification. Theologically speaking, to “justify” means “to declare one righteous before God.” It is a legal term and refers to one’s “right standing” with God. Through the atonement, a holy God is able to take an unholy sinner and pronounce him righteous without any violation of His own holy standard. Because He is perfect in all His ways, the Lord will not tolerate anything less than holiness in His presence. That would leave you and me in a hopeless state were it not for His atoning intervention. In Romans 5:1 we are told that “We have been justified by faith...through our Lord Jesus Christ.” In speaking of justification, it is important to distinguish “being made righteous” and “being declared righteous.” The believing sinner is declared to “be righteous” at the moment of saving faith. But as long as we inhabit these bodies of clay, we are “being made righteous” day by day. This explains why we continue to sin and need daily forgiveness even after we have been given “right standing” with God.
The last benefit of the atonement that I will mention is propitiation. To “propitiate” refers “appeasing the anger of someone and regaining a favored status.” Specifically, it speaks of “the turning away of God’s wrath toward sinners by means of a satisfactory payment.” This is exactly what the atoning death of Jesus accomplished. In Romans 3:25 we read that the Lord put forth Christ “as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” And John also speaks of this in his first epistle, when twice he reminds us that Jesus “is the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 2:2 and 4:10). Think of it...God is fully satisfied with the sacrifice of His Son on our behalf with respect to the payment for our sins!
We could add to this list of benefits, but these should be sufficient to fill our hearts with gratitude for the finished work of atonement made possible for us through the sacrifice of the sinless “Lamb of God” (cf. John 1:29).
Please hear me carefully when I say that it is only because of the atoning work of the Lord Jesus that you and I are able to stand in the presence of an infinitely holy God. All of our own supposed righteousness is as “filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6, KJV) in His sight. It took the death of the sinless One—Jesus, the Son of God—to assuage the wrath of God so that He was free to act on our behalf.
Because we are all sinners, we all need an atonement. But any so-called “Days of Atonement”—Yom Kippurs—that are celebrated today are meaningless exercises. That is because, through the once-for-all offering of our Lord Jesus Christ, the significance of that Day has forever been fulfilled. There is no other approach to God that is satisfactory than the one provided by Christ alone. The way of Jesus is an exclusive one (cf. John 14:6 and Acts 4:12). Until we see and confess the wretchedness of our sin and our powerless to atone for it there is no solution to the problem.
Some of you need to hear this word of hope today. Perhaps you know who you are. If the Lord has given you ears to hear His voice this morning, then understand that the only hope that I can offer you is the same hope that the Lord Himself holds out in His Word. And that is to recognize that the problem of sin was solved when the sinless Son of God died on the cross as a substitute for His people. So, the question that remains is, are you one of His people?
The Day of Atonement was a picture of the death of Jesus Christ, whose shed blood provided complete purging and eternal forgiveness to everyone who calls on His name. As long as you fail to do that you will remain in your sins, and there is no other substitute able to make atonement on your behalf.