The Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16)

Most of us have heard about Yom Kippur, even if we are not Jewish. The descriptions of Yom Kippur on the Internet are universally serious and sober. One site calls Yom Kippur “the most solemn of Jewish religious holidays, observed on the 10th day of the lunar month of Tishri (in the course of September and October), when Jews seek to expiate their sins and achieve reconciliation with God.” Many Christians are unaware that Yom Kippur, translated as the “day of atonement,” is part of every Bible. The fundamental teaching on the day of atonement is given in Leviticus 16, and that is where I will be focusing for this post. The New Testament book of “Hebrews” also spends a good bit of time explaining the significance of the day of atonement and teaches how Jesus the Messiah has fulfilled this foreshadow or “type” by His sacrificial death on the cross.

With this post, I want to carefully go through Leviticus 16 and show how this Jewish ceremony established by Moses 3,500 years ago points to the finished work of Jesus the Messiah that He accomplished in His death and resurrection.

(I will be using the New American Standard translation of the Bible.)

GENERAL OBSERVATIONS ABOUT THE CEREMONY

Before we get into the actual ceremony and what Aaron the priest was commanded to do on the day of atonement, there are several preliminary observations to make.

  • First, the LORD Himself spoke to Moses and gave him the requirements for this day. In fact, The LORD is the only person who speaks in Leviticus 16. The LORD speaks to Moses and describes the precise requirements for the day of atonement if the sins of the people were to be removed. Therefore, the ceremony was not invented by Moses, nor were the details of the ceremony made up by other people. Rather, “The LORD spoke to Moses (16:1, 2).”
  • Second, the day of atonement was observed on one day of every year, the tenth day of the seventh month, and it was a permanent statute for the children of Israel, meaning that they were required to perform this ceremony every year (Leviticus 16:29). Yom Kippur was not optional.
  • Third, the purpose of Yom Kippur was that “on this day, atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you; you will be clean from all your sins before the LORD (16:30 – read 16:29-34).” The LORD God is a holy God and our sin creates a separation between us and God (Isaiah 59:1-2) and brings us under His righteous judgment and condemnation (Ezekiel 18:4). In the Law (Torah) of the Old Testament, the LORD, through Yom Kippur, provided a way for the sins of man to be cleansed and washed away, so that men and women would not be condemned before Him. Every year the Hebrew people were required to repeat the ceremony, as a reminder of their ongoing sinfulness.
  • Fourth, only the high priest could perform the ceremony of the day of atonement and, as we will see, he was required to perform his duties precisely according to the instructions the LORD gave. Every part of the priest’s duty was for a purpose and no part could be omitted. Acceptable atonement depended on the priest performing his duties exactly as prescribed. If he did not do everything according to the instructions, the priest would die before the LORD and the people’s sins would remain.

THE CEREMONY ITSELF

            As we have said, the ceremony for Yom Kippur is carefully explained in Leviticus chapter 16. There are many steps and actions described in this chapter which are necessary to atone for sin and trying to follow all these details can be confusing, especially to a reader who is relatively unfamiliar with Israel’s sacrificial system. To simplify matters, the whole ceremony can be described in three broad ideas, namely:

  • The forgiveness of any sin requires shedding the blood of an acceptable sacrifice. Therefore, the high priest must bring blood into the Most Holy Place to be sprinkled on the mercy seat (“the propitiatory”).
  • The central focus of the day of atonement is on the two goats, one goat that is sacrificed as a sin offering and another goat that remains alive and is sent away into the wilderness. To understand Yom Kippur and how Yom Kippur allowed for the atonement of the sins of the people, a person must understand the meaning of the two goats.
  • The ceremony is steeped in holiness and was a unique sacrifice among all the sacrifices of the Hebrew sacrificial system. This was the only sacrifice when the high priest was allowed into the Most Holy Place (“the Holy of holies”). This was the only sacrifice that required two animals. This was the only ceremony in the sacrificial system where a live animal survived. 

LEVITICUS 16, VERSES 1-10

            The first ten verses give an overview and preliminary instruction for what will happen during the whole ceremony. The LORD reminds Moses of how serious this day is and that even the high priest must not enter the Most Holy place (“Holy of holies”) unless he brings blood to atone for his own sin. We are also introduced to the two male goats, who are the focus of the ceremony. Aaron is to “cast lots for the two goats (16:8).” One goat will be sacrificed to the LORD as a sin offering and the other goat will be the scapegoat (or “the goat of removal”). “The scapegoat will be presented alive before the LORD, to make atonement upon it, to send it into the wilderness as a scapegoat (16:10).”

LEVITICUS 16, VERSES 11-14 – The bull of the sin offering (inside the veil)

            Now the action of the sacrifices begins. Aaron, the high priest, must offer the bull of the sin offering (16:11); he must slaughter the bull of the sin offering (16:11); and he must take some of the blood of the bull into the Holy of holies (“inside the veil” – 16:12) to sprinkle it on the mercy seat (16:14).

All this is done to atone for the high priest’s own personal sins. He cannot come into the presence of the LORD unless his sins have been atoned for. Also, notice that, before he enters inside the veil and into the presence of the LORD, the high priest must prepare a cloud of incense (16:12-13) to cover the mercy seat, “otherwise he will die.”

LEVITICUS 16, VERSES 15-19 – The goat of the sin offering (inside the veil)

            After making atonement for his own sins, the high priest goes back out to the holy place inside the tent and slaughters the goat of the sin offering (the first goat). He then brings the blood of that goat inside the veil, into the Holy of holies, to sprinkle its blood on the mercy seat and before the mercy seat “to make atonement for all the assembly of Israel (16:17).” In this part of the ceremony, the blood of the sin offering atones for the sins of the people.

LEVITICUS 16, VERSES 20-22 – The goat of removal (outside the tent)

            But now the high priest goes outside the tent of meeting and offers the live goat (16:20). Then the priest “shall lay both of his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the sons of Israel and all their transgressions in regard to all their sins (16:21).” By confessing the sins of all the people over the head of the live goat, the high priest has transferred those sins to the live goat. Then the goat, which is now bearing the sins of all the people, is sent away into the wilderness so that their sins will be remembered no more.

AN ODD CEREMONY – WHAT DOES IT MEAN?

            As we consider this ceremony of Yom Kippur that the LORD prescribed for taking away sins, a number of questions may arise, like:

  • How can animal sacrifices, even those commanded by the LORD, atone for human sins?
  • What sorts of sins did the children of Israel have to confess? I am pretty sure their sins were different than our sins.
  • This ceremony took place a long, long time ago. What does this have to do with me today? Things have changed since then. Surely God does not still require atonement for my sin and does not still require blood sacrifices.
  • Why would God create such an unusual ceremony to atone for sin? Doesn’t God just sort of wave His hand and forgive sin? Why this elaborate ceremony?
  • Why did this have to be repeated every year as a “perpetual statute?” It seems like it would be done once for all time and that would be that. Why the repetition?
  • This ceremony cannot be done now because neither the tabernacle nor the temple still exists, and because sacrificing animals is just not done in our culture. How, then, are God’s people supposed to atone for their sins now?

YOM KIPPUR IS A FORESHADOW OF SOMETHING ELSE

            These are all interesting questions, and they probably deserve answers, but these questions miss the main point. The main point, and the point that will answer most of the questions above, is that the LORD prescribed the ceremony of Yom Kippur not as an end in itself, but as a picture of something much greater that was to come. We refer to this picturing of something in the future as a “foreshadow.” The idea is that we see the shadow now, but we know that the greater reality is coming soon. Since we see the shadow now, the substance will be right behind it. So, Yom Kippur is a foreshadow of a greater reality to follow.

The day of atonement as described in Leviticus 16 shows us several things:

  • All people have sinned against the commandments of the LORD. Notice that the high priest needed to make atonement for all the people. That means that all had sinned.
  • The LORD God is holy and requires atonement for sin. That is the entire purpose of the ceremony. God is very serious about sin.
  • We cannot make ourselves righteous before God, but we need a sin offering to atone for our sins. The priest had to bring the blood of the prescribed sin offering inside the veil to sprinkle the blood on the mercy seat. Just so, we need the blood an acceptable sacrifice to atone for our sins.
  • We also need a “goat of removal” who will take our sins away “into the wilderness” so that we will no longer be under the judgment of God.
  • Leviticus 16 describes Yom Kippur, which was to berepeated every single year, but we need a permanent solution to our sin problem. We need a once-for-all time sacrifice to atone for our sin and we need some way to permanently take our sins away into the wilderness.

Yom Kippur foreshadows the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah as an atonement for the sins of His people. In His death on the cross, Jesus was “the goat of the sin offering.” He was the acceptable sacrifice who “gave His life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). It is His blood that serves as atonement for the sins of His people. But Jesus is also “the goat of removal,” because by His resurrection “He always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:25). That is, because He rose from the dead and lives forever, He is always able to take away the sins of His people into the wilderness.

HOW DO WE RECEIVE THE ATONEMENT JESUS OFFERS?

APPLICATION: Jesus grants atonement and forgiveness of sins to all His people. Who are “His people?” His people are all those who have placed their faith in Him as Lord and Savior. Regardless of ethnicity or past sins or social position or age or any other external differentiation, “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart a person believes resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.” – Romans 10:9-10.

When we place our faith in Jesus, we figuratively place both our hands on His head (Leviticus 16:21) and declare our faith in Him and we confess our sins to God. In that act of faith, Jesus dies for us as “the goat of the sin offering” (Lev. 16:15-19) to take away the penalty for our sin, and, by His resurrection, He also lives for us as “the live goat” (Leviticus 16:20-22) to continue to take our sins away into the wilderness, “to a solitary land” (16:22). If you have never done that, now would be a good time to receive that atonement and the forgiveness that Jesus has to offer.

2 thoughts on “The Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16)

  1. Great summary and reflection of Leviticus 16 as it foreshadows the atoning sacrifice of Christ, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. I didn’t realize that it was the only ceremony in the sacrificial system where a live animal survived. And that live animal represents a “goal of removal,” like casting our sins as far as the east is from the west. Thanks for sharing!

    Like

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