Leviticus 16

The Day of Atonement (16:1–34)
(Leviticus 23:26–32; Numbers 29:7–11)

Then Aaron was to sprinkle blood within the Tent of Meeting (the Holy Place) and thus make atonement for it as well (verse 16). After that, he was to put some blood on the horns of the altar of burnt offering (see Exodus 27:2) and thus make atonement for the altar too (verses 18–19).

20–22 The next part of the ritual was unique: Aaron was to place his hand on the head of the live goat, confess over it the sins of the people, and thus symbolically transfer those sins to the goat (verse 21). Then someone would lead the goat away and release it in a solitary place in the desert.

Why was this ritual with the live goat necessary? Hadn’t the sins of Aaron and the people already been atoned for?

Yes, they had. But atonement for sin has two aspects. The first aspect is the actual sacrifice, the substitution of life for life, whereby one’s sins are forgiven or “paid for.” At this point the person is cleansed and no longer held guilty by God.

But even after a person’s objective guilt has been removed, that person may still feel guilty; he or she may still feel unclean, and doubt whether they have truly been forgiven. For complete atonement to take place, one must have his sins and also the effects of sin removed—carried completely away. And it is this second aspect of atonement that the scapegoat fulfilled: The goat will carry on itself all their sins (verse 22). King DAVID later wrote: . . . as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us (Psalm 103:12). The ritual of the scapegoat was meant to give the Israelites the assurance that they had been forgiven.

Once we have confessed our sins and the atoning sacrifice has been made, then we can lay those sins—as well as the doubts, the guilty feelings, the sense of uncleanness—all on the head of the scapegoat and he will carry them far away. Jesus himself bore our sins in his body (1 Peter 2:24). Jesus has done everything for us; He not only died as an atoning sacrifice for our sins but He also carried those sins away and freed us totally from their effects—the pollution, uncleanness and guilt. Each Old Testament ritual, each sacrifice accomplished just one aspect of atonement, and it had to be repeated over and over; but by His death on the cross Jesus has once for all brought about the complete atonement of all those who have put their faith in Him (see Leviticus 7:37–38 and comment).

23–25 There remained one main task left to do: after changing back again into his regular garments, Aaron was to sacrifice the two burnt offerings, one for himself and one for the people. While burnt offerings were Israel’s ordinary means of atonement throughout the year, they also signified total dedication on the part of the offerer because the sacrificed animal was totally consumed on the altar (see Leviticus 1:3–4 and comment). It’s mainly this latter purpose that is in view here: after atonement for the entire nation had been made, the people could signify their gratitude and their renewed dedication to the Lord by the sacrifice of these burnt offerings.52

26–28 These verses deal with “cleaning up”after the rituals had been completed. The remains of the sin offering had to be burned up outside the camp (see Leviticus 4:12), just as Jesus, our sin offering, was taken “outside the camp”—outside Jerusalem—to be crucified (Hebrews 13:11–13).

29–34 God told the Israelites that the Day of Atonement must be observed as a special “sabbath” day—that is, a day of rest (verse 31); no work was to be done. It was a day of repentance, of mourning for sin, and of re-dedication to the Lord. The Israelites were to deny themselves (verse 29), which mainly meant that they were to fast on that day. This was the only fast day in Israel’s calendar year; this further indicated how important the Day of Atonement was in the religious life of Israel. Indeed, according to Leviticus 23:29–30, anyone who didn’t deny himself on that day would be cut off53 from his people, and anyone who worked on that day the Lord would destroy. Anyone who treated the Day of Atonement lightly was, in effect, despising God’s provision of atonement and thereby cutting himself off from God’s presence and from His covenant promises.

On this day, according to verse 34, atonement was made for all the sins of the Israelites. However, from other passages we can understand that this means “for all the unintentional sins” of the Israelites; there was no atonement possible for sins committed intentionally, that is, in hardened and unrepentant defiance of God’s law (see Leviticus 4:1–2 and comment).

Atonement is to be made once a year (verse 34). Jesus Christ put an end to the need for annual atonement, because by the one sacrifice of His own body He made final and permanent atonement for the sins of all those who believe in Him (Hebrews 9:2426; 10:12–14).

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