The Atonement (Part 3 of 5)
Leviticus 16 describes the most important ritual in Israel’s worship of the LORD: The Day of Atonement. This day was considered the most holy day in the Israelite calendar, for it was the only day in the year where the High Priest was permitted to enter the Holy of Holies, the special inner room of the Tabernacle where the Ark of the Covenant was stored. What happened on this day was of special significance because it was on this day that Israel’s sins as a nation were atoned for. Little did they know just how significant this ceremony would be, for in three very powerful ways the events of this day would point squarely at the ONE who would become their ultimate atonement: the Messiah!
The ritual itself was very highly detailed in Leviticus 16, showing the reader the importance and gravity of the situation. The high priest was usually forbidden from entering the Holy of Holies upon pain of death (v.2), and being permitted to enter just this once was perilous. To do so, he had to don a special outfit for the occasion (v.4) and offering separate sacrifices to atone for himself and his family (v.6). When the time came, two goats that were chosen for the ritual were brought forward:
"He shall take the two goats and present them before the LORD at the doorway of the tent of meeting. Aaron shall cast lots for the two goats, one lot for the LORD and the other lot for the scapegoat. Then Aaron shall offer the goat on which the lot for the LORD fell, and make it a sin offering. But the goat on which the lot for the scapegoat fell shall be presented alive before the LORD, to make atonement upon it, to send it into the wilderness as the scapegoat.”
(Lev. 16.7-10 NASB)
The goat that God chose as the sacrifice was then killed and its blood was used to atone for the holy place (v.16), the altar (v.18), and the sins of the entire nation of Israel (v.17). The innocent lamb chosen by God would die so that Israel’s sins could be atoned for, in a powerful echo of the sacrifice made by the Passover lambs in Exodus 12-13.
To the other goat, known as the “scapegoat”, something very peculiar would happen:
“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. 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. The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness.” (Lev. 16.20-22)
The high priest would, in essence, put the sins of Israel from the previous year upon this equally innocent goat and then someone would lead the goat into the wilderness, never to be seen again. The process of removing Israel’s sins was so serious that EVERYONE involved in this ceremony was required to ritually wash themselves afterwards: Aaron (v.24), The one leading the goat away (v.26), and the one who brought the sacrificial animals outside the camp to be burned (v.28). Everyone who had some form of “contact” with sin washed themselves before coming back into the camp.
So how does this ceremony this point forward to the Messiah? Let us look at it from the three main elements of the ceremony: The Slain Goat, the Scapegoat, and the Priest.
The Slain Goat: Atonement through Propitiation by Christ
In Leviticus 16.15-17, the blood of the slain goat (or the sacrifice) was taken inside the Tabernacle, inside the Holy of Holies, and sprinkled upon and in front of the “mercy seat”, or the golden lid of the Ark of the Covenant. This was done because of Israel’s “uncleannesses...and…their transgressions, all their sins” (v.16). This process removed Israel’s sins from the previous year and appeased God’s holy wrath on account of these.
In the New Testament, the blood of Jesus is described as doing this very thing, even using the same phrasing to describe it!
“For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” (Rom. 3.22b-25a).
In a greater fulfillment of the ritual conducted by the Israelites, Jesus was chosen by God to be our sacrifice, the atonement for the sins of the world! Even that strange word used in v.25, “propitiation”, is actually a translation of the Greek word hilasterion, which is translated “mercy seat” in Heb. 9.5!
The apostle John would also use the word “propitiation” to describe the effect of Jesus’ sacrifice for those who come to Him in obedient faith:
“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2.1-2)
The Scapegoat: Our Sins Carried Away by Christ
In Leviticus 16.10, the “scapegoat” (as the 2nd goat is referred to in the KJV and NASB) was to “carry away” Israel’s sins into the wilderness. This would be a powerful symbol for Israel, as they would see the poor innocent goat upon which Aaron had laid all their sins be led over the horizon into the wilderness, never to be seen again. The idea this symbolized was simple: their sins were being taken away forever. God, in his mercy, was taking away THEIR sins for which THEY should be punished and instead sending them away where they would not endanger them anymore.
The same concept is used to describe what would happen to the sins of all mankind. They would be laid upon ONE who was innocent, and HE would suffer the consequences on our behalf.
Consider how the symbol of the scapegoat points forward to Jesus through these passages:
· “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isa. 53.6)
· “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Pet. 2.24)
· “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor. 5.21)
· “so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” (Heb. 9.28)
· “You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin.”
(1 John 3.5)
The High Priest: The Intercessor and Mediator
During the Day of Atonement ritual, the high priest played a critical role in the ceremony. He was the only one allowed into the Most Holy Place, he could not go without having atoned for himself first, and he was required to remove his typical regal high priestly garments in exchange for a simple white linen outfit. In other words, he was required to be ritually clean and holy prior to entering God’s presence to atone for Israel. A clearer visual image for who Christ was and what He would do is hard to find!
Consider how the Hebrew writer describes Christ as our ultimate high priest and how He fulfills the role of not only sacrifice and scapegoat, but of intercessor before God on our behalf using the language of the Day of Atonement ceremony:
· “We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” (Heb. 6.19-20)
· “For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens.” (Heb. 7.26)
· “But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) 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.” (Heb. 9.11-12)
· “For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” (Heb. 9.24-26)
What we have in Jesus, then, is the fulfillment of the Day of Atonement.
· Jesus was our Sacrifice, His blood shed for a new, eternal covenant. (Mark. 14.24; Heb. 13.20)
· Jesus was our Scapegoat, taking our sins upon Himself and nailing them to His Cross. (Col. 2.14)
· Jesus is our High Priest, who “always lives to make intercession” (Heb. 7.25) for us!