IV. The Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:1-34)

16:1-10 The Day of Atonement was the most solemn day on Israel’s calendar. The emphasis in this chapter is on the necessity of sin being atoned for so that God’s people may be forgiven and reconciled to him. The ministry of the high priest was crucial in facilitating this. God set the regulations for the Day of Atonement in the context of priestly disobedience and made it inextricably clear to Aaron that he must follow the Lord’s commands to the letter (16:1-2).

For believers in Jesus Christ, this offers strong encouragement. Since our sins too have been sent away, so to speak, we cannot lose our salvation. The scapegoat isn’t coming back tomorrow to return to us all the sins we thought were gone. If you have trusted Jesus Christ as your Savior, your sins have been removed “as far as the east is from the west” (Ps 103:12).

Watching the goat being led away served as a vivid illustration to the Israelites that their sins had been removed and fully atoned for. Yet, it’s important to remember that this ritual had to be repeated annually (see Lev 16:34). Only through Christ do sinful people have a sacrifice that was offered “once for all time” and lasts “forever” (Heb 10:10-14).

16:23-33 Following this ceremony, Aaron returned to the tent of meeting to change out of his special clothing and bathe again. He then offered the burnt offering that made atonement for his sins and those of the people (16:23-24). The unused parts of the offering were brought outside the camp and burned (16:27). The author of Hebrews alludes to the practice and says this was also true of Jesus Christ who “suffered outside the gate” of the city (Heb 13:11-12). Therefore, Christians should identify with their Lord and “go to him outside the camp.” In other words, we must be willing to bear “his disgrace” (Heb 13:13).

16:34 The Day of Atonement was to be established as an annual event. With it came a once-a-year sacrifice of atonement for Israel’s sins, officiated by the high priest alone. It was needed to make atonement for the Israelites . . . because of all their sins. When Jesus offered himself as our great high priest, he made atonement for our sins once and for all (see Heb 10:10). The Day of Atonement was fulfilled in him.

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