Main Idea: Sin defiles us and our environment, but through the sacrifice of Jesus, God provides atonement for our sin and removes it from us forever when we confess our sin and come to Jesus.
I. Sin Defiles Us and Our Environment.
II. We Come into God’s Presence with Care.
III. God Offers Atonement for Sin.
IV. God Offers Removal of Sin.
V. Jesus Is God’s Offer of Atonement and Removal of Sin.
VI. We Confess and Come to Jesus for Reconciliation with God.
After God delivered His people from bondage in Egypt, He led them into the wilderness. While they were in the wilderness at Mount Sinai, God made a covenant with them and gave them His law. God knew that His people would transgress His law. In fact, while God was giving Moses the Ten Commandments they made a golden calf, which they worshiped as a god, thereby breaking the first two of the Ten Commandments. Would God give up on His people as a result of their sin? Would He lower His standard of holiness and expect less of them? Would He consider His covenant with them as broken forever? Instead of responding in such ways, God graciously gave His people a system of sacrifices that would atone for their sin so they could be reconciled to Him and continue a relationship with Him. God also ordered that on one day every year the high priest would offer special sacrifices for the people, for himself, and for the tabernacle. That was the Day of Atonement, described in Leviticus 16.
Some commentators have referred to the sixteenth chapter of Leviticus as the central chapter of the book. Chapters 1–15 describe laws for sacrifices and purity, and chapters 17–27 describe the holy living that God required of His people. Chapter 16 stands in the middle of those two divisions of Leviticus, and it describes the holiest day of the year for God’s people of the old covenant (Kleinig, Leviticus, 19; Matthews, Leviticus, 133–34). Leviticus 23 refers to that day as yom hakkippurim (vv. 27-28). Today we call it “Yom Kippur,” or “Day of Atonement.”
The inner sanctum of old covenant religion was the most holy place or holy of holies in the tabernacle, and later in the temple in Jerusalem. Only the high priest could enter that space, and he entered only on the Day of Atonement. On that day the most sacred person entered the most sacred space and performed the most sacred worship ceremonies (Sarna, Exploring Exodus, 205). The ceremonies of the Day of Atonement are also the most important Old Testament ceremonies for New Testament Christians because they most clearly explain and illustrate God’s central and final act of atoning grace—the death of Jesus for our sins. What are the primary truths God has communicated in Leviticus 16 and through the Day of Atonement?
Sin Defiles Us and Our Environment
Verses 16, 18, and 20 seem strange to many modern people because they refer to making atonement for the holy place, the bronze altar, and the tent of meeting. How does one make atonement for an inanimate object, and why is that necessary? God was communicating the message that sin defiles us and our environment. Therefore, part of the Day of Atonement was devoted to cleansing the space where the people had brought their sins to God all year. In the minds of the people that space surely was associated with sin, since sacrifices were offered for sin constantly.
We know what it is like to feel the need to rid an area of negative associations. Why have Americans felt the impulse to build a significant structure on the site of the former World Trade Center in New York City? That place was where a great evil was perpetrated, and we want to redeem the site for good. The place did nothing wrong; people did wrong at that place. Still, we associate the wrong with the place. Sometimes that happens in our personal lives. We did something wrong, and every time we go back to the place where we committed that wrong or every time we even think of that place, we feel the guilt all over again.
The tabernacle had done nothing wrong. Nevertheless, the people came there all year with their sins and offered sacrifices in that space to atone for them. They associated that place with their sin. It was supposed to be a holy place, but their sin made it dirty. God gave the ceremonies of the Day of Atonement to help His people start over again, to sanctify that space. Sin defiles us and our environment.
Aaron the high priest was probably highly motivated to obey God’s instructions about the Day of Atonement. Verse 1 of Leviticus 16 says that God gave Aaron the instructions “after the death of two of Aaron’s sons when they approached the presence of the Lord and died.” The story of the deaths of Aaron’s sons is recorded in the tenth chapter of Leviticus. Their names were Nadab and Abihu, and on the altar they offered a burnt offering that was contrary to God’s command. They disobeyed God in the way they worshiped Him, and as a result of their disobedience flames leaped from the Lord’s presence “and burned them to death before the Lord” (10:2). After that, when God spoke, Aaron must have been ready to obey, especially when God said that Aaron was not to enter the holy place “or else he will die” (16:2). God repeated that warning in verse 13. Aaron knew to take God seriously.
God gave Aaron directions about everything he was to do on the Day of Atonement. God also told Aaron how and where he was to do them. God was specific. That illustrates a truth that is expressed in various ways throughout the Bible—we are not to approach God in a haphazard way or in the way that suits us at the moment. We submit to what God says in His Word about how to approach Him. He is God, not man. He is our sovereign Lord, not our buddy, and we come into His presence with a keen awareness of that fact. In Matthew 6:9 Jesus taught us to begin prayer by saying, “Our Father in heaven, Your name be honored as holy.” Holy, revered, be Your name, O God. The psalmist wrote in Psalm 100:4, “Enter His gates with thanksgiving and His courts with praise.” We don’t come into His presence naming our demands or imposing our opinions; we come into His presence giving Him praise as God and bowing our hearts in reverence out of fear of His holiness and awesome power. After God sent fire to consume Nadab and Abihu for not treating Him as holy, God said, “I will show My holiness to those who are near Me” (Lev 10:3). We come into God’s presence with care.
God Offers Atonement for Sin
This was the Day of Atonement. In chapter 16 God used the word “atonement” 15 times as He spoke about that day. God gave Aaron rituals to make atonement for himself and his family (vv. 6,11,17), for the holy place (vv. 16,20), for the altar (v. 18,20,33), for the tent of meeting as a whole (v. 20), and for all the people (vv. 24,33). Why was atonement so important? We sin. Therefore, atonement for sin is necessary in order for us to be in God’s presence, and being in God’s presence is important. Atonement is doing what God says is necessary to reconcile us to Him. In the old covenant period God said to atone for sin through the sacrifices and ceremonies He prescribed.
Sacrificial atonement for sin is necessary because of God’s justice. Since God is just, He must punish sin. God commanded Israelite judges to be just, clearing the innocent and punishing the guilty (Exod 23:6-8; Deut 1:16-17). In one of King Solomon’s prayers, he expressed his confidence that God is just, “condemning the wicked man by bringing what he has done on his own head and providing justice for the righteous by rewarding him according to his righteousness” (1 Kings 8:32). A judge who lets a guilty person go free with no punishment for his wrongdoing is not a good judge; he is not upholding justice. However, God must let guilty people go free if He is going to save guilty sinners like us. God is merciful and loving, so He doesn’t want us to perish for our sin. So how can the justice of God and the mercy of God be reconciled?
Atonement for sin through sacrifice is God’s answer to the tension between His justice and mercy. God expressed His justice against sin in the death of the sacrifice, and God expressed His mercy to the sinner by allowing the sacrifice to substitute for the sinner. The sacrifice died, not the sinner. God’s penalty for sin was applied, but it was applied to the sacrifice, not the guilty. The old covenant sacrifices atoned for sin, they taught the world the meaning of sacrificial atonement, and they prepared the world for the sacrifice of Jesus. When Jesus died on the cross for our sins He provided the final, perfect, once-for-all sacrificial atonement for sin. Thank God, He offers us atonement for sin!
God Offers Removal of Sin
On the Day of Atonement, the high priest offered a bull and ram as sacrifices for sin. He also burned incense on the altar of incense. Third, he offered two goats as sacrifices—one was killed and the other remained alive. The living sacrifice was unique to the Day of Atonement. It appears only here in Leviticus 16. Verses 8, 10, and 26 have the word “azazel.” Azazel is the Hebrew word, and some English translations reproduce that word (HCSB, ESV, RSV, NRSV). The meaning of azazel is uncertain. Some interpreters take it as a place name—the goat took the sins of the people to Azazel (Rooker, Leviticus, 216–17). Others take the word as a name for a demon or the Devil himself—the goat took the sins of the people to Azazel, to the demonic, where sins belong (Gane, Leviticus, Numbers, 290–91). Some English translations have the word “scapegoat” (NASB, NIV, KJV, NKJV). The word scapegoat was introduced in William Tyndale’s English translation of the Bible in the early sixteenth century. Tyndale, along with some translators today, took the Hebrew word to mean something like “goat of removal,” or “goat that departs,” and in the context of the Day of Atonement the goat departed with sin; he removed sin from the camp (Rooker, Leviticus, 216).
We use the word scapegoat all the time to refer to somebody who takes the blame for wrongdoing. I once saw a comic strip that pictured two employees. The first employee had worked on a project that was a total failure, and the company suffered losses because of his blunder. He decided he was going to tell the boss that the second employee had caused the losses. The second employee confronted him and insisted on his innocence. The first employee told him, “I never said it was your fault; I said I was going to blame you!” He made an important distinction—fault and blame are not necessarily the same. In common conversation a scapegoat is someone who bears the blame but not fault. People blame him for something he did not do. The scapegoat received the sins of the people on the Day of Atonement. Verse 21 says the high priest would
lay both his hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the Israelites’ wrongdoings and rebellious acts—all their sins. He is to put them on the goat’s head and send it away into the wilderness.
The high priest put the sins of the people on the goat. The goat would bear the sins of others; he was a scapegoat. In verse 21 (NASB) God used all three of the primary words for sin in the Old Testament—iniquities, transgressions, and sins—as if to stack up all the wrongdoing God’s people had committed throughout the year. All of it was placed on the scapegoat when the priest laid his hands on his head. Verse 22 says that when the goat went away, he was carrying their sin, symbolizing the removal of sin from the people. What a beautiful symbol of a beautiful truth. God offers removal of sin.
I was 13 years old when I first put my faith in Jesus as Savior. The moment I trusted Him to save me and forgive me, I felt a burden lifted from my shoulders. The feeling was so real that it was almost a physical sensation. I knew that at that moment God had forgiven me of all my past sin. He took it away, off my shoulders. Many followers of Jesus attest to the same feeling—the wonderful sensation of God forgiving and removing sin.
Psalm 103, verse 12 says, “As far as the east is from the west so far has He removed our transgressions from us.” East and west are not locations; they are directions. If we started traveling in an eastward direction on a flat plane, conceivably we could keep traveling until we left the surface of the earth and started traveling through space. We could travel in that direction for billions of light years, and we could do the same thing if we traveled west. If two people traveled in opposite directions at the same time, the distance between them would be billions and billions of light years. That is removing our sin “as far as the east is from the west.” After God removes our sin, He no longer sees our sin when He looks at us. He has removed our sin as far as the east is from the west. Praise His name, God offers to remove our sin! Do we ask God to remove it?
Jesus Is God’s Offer of Atonement and Removal of Sin
God gave the ceremonies of the Day of Atonement to atone for the sin of His people who lived in the old covenant period. God also gave the ceremonies of the Day of Atonement to point to the final sacrifice of Jesus on the cross and to teach the meaning of His sacrifice.
The ninth and tenth chapters of the book of Hebrews describe in detail how Jesus’ death on the cross supersedes the Day of Atonement and all the old covenant sacrifices. Hebrews says that on the Day of Atonement the high priest offered the blood of animals; Jesus offered His own blood, and since He is eternal His atonement for our sins is eternal (Heb 9:12). The high priest entered an earthly tent; Jesus offered His sacrifice in the presence of God Himself (9:24). The high priest offered sacrifices for his own sins (Lev 16:6,11,17; Heb 9:7); Jesus had no sin so He was the perfect high priest and the perfect sacrifice (Heb 7:26-27). The high priest had to offer sacrifices repeatedly; Jesus offered Himself as a sacrifice once for all eternity (9:25-26; 10:11-12). The writer of Hebrews concluded that the old covenant sacrifices were “a shadow of the good things to come” (10:1), and Jesus has abolished the old covenant and established the new covenant in His sacrifice on the cross (8:13; 10:9).
Jesus is God’s offer of atonement and removal of sin. That is the teaching of the New Testament and it is the gospel the church has always preached. Throughout the history of Christianity, the theology of the church has been expressed in the songs we sing in worship. For example, in the song “The Power of the Cross,” Keith Getty and Stuart Townend express the biblical truth of the substitutionary atonement of Jesus on the cross. Substitutionary atonement means that Jesus died in the place of sinners, taking on Himself our sin and God’s righteous wrath against sin. As 2 Corinthians 5:21 puts it, “He made the One who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” As 1 Peter 3:18 says, “For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring you to God.” Jesus died in our place for our sins. That’s worth singing about! God’s righteous wrath against our sin was satisfied through the death of Jesus on the cross. The New Testament word “propitiation” expresses the truth of the satisfaction of God’s wrath against sin. First John 4:10 says, “Love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” Thank God that He doesn’t compromise His holiness or His love, and He has expressed His perfect wrath and His perfect love on the cross so we can be free of sin and reconciled to Him! Jesus is God’s offer of atonement and removal of sin.
We Confess and Come to Jesus for Reconciliation with God
Leviticus 16:21 says part of the scapegoat ritual was confession of sin. The reason for the existence of the ritual was the existence of the sin of the people. To be free of sin they had to confess sin. So do we. The reason for the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross was our sin, and to be reconciled to God we confess our sin and our need for the salvation from sin Jesus offers. It seems strange, but many people are reluctant to confess sin to God. Voicing their sins in prayer to God makes them feel more guilty, not less. They sometimes choose to ignore their sin and attempt to forget about it so they will not feel as guilty. Yet, when we refrain from confessing we are refraining from the very thing that is necessary to free us from our sin and guilt.
When we sin, and all of us sin, what do we do to be reconciled to God? Many people ask that question, and no question is more important. To be reconciled to God we tell the Lord we have sinned and we know sin has separated us from Him. Thank the Lord that He loves us and has provided a way for our sin to be forgiven and removed! We tell Him that we believe He came as Jesus, God the Son, He died on the cross for our sin, He rose again on the third day, and He is alive today to save us. Then we ask Him to come into our lives, forgive our sin, and give us life abundant and eternal. Praise His name, He will do that!
To be reconciled to God we do not have to enlist a priest to go to God for us. In the old covenant period only the high priest could go into the most holy place only once each year, on the Day of Atonement. However, when Jesus died on the cross the veil that separated the most holy place from the holy place was torn from top to bottom, symbolizing the fact that in Jesus all God’s people have access to the very presence of God. So as Hebrews 4:16 puts it, “Therefore let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us at the proper time.” In this new covenant age, because of God’s grace in Jesus, He welcomes us into His presence not merely one day per year, but every day of our lives.
Reflect and Discuss
- What is the Day of Atonement?
- What was God communicating when He required atonement for the holy place, the bronze altar, and the tent of meeting?
- How does sin still defile us and our environment? Are there places you associate with your past sin?
- What should be your attitude when you enter God’s presence?
- How are the justice of God and mercy of God reconciled?
- What was the role of the scapegoat? What did the goat symbolize?
- According to Psalm 103:12, what does God do with a believer’s sin? Have you asked God to remove your sin?
- Describe how Jesus’ death on the cross supersedes the Day of Atonement and the old covenant sacrifices (Hebrews 9–10).
- What happened to the veil that separated the most holy place from the holy place when Jesus died? What does this symbolize?
- What are the primary truths God has communicated in Leviticus 16 and through the Day of Atonement?