There is no greater joy than knowing we are forgiven and accepted by God. Israel got just a brief, yearly glimpse of that reality, which we who are in Christ enjoy today. Israel’s Day of Atonement gives us deeper understanding of and appreciation for the work of Christ.
We have arrived at this amazing chapter in Leviticus, where we watch just one day in the life of Israel unfold. And what a day it is. This is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when God granted cleansing and forgiveness for the sins of the nation.
You might say that for one day God’s people enjoyed a clean slate, not by any effort of their own, but through atonement and the grace of God. The high priest here will represent a sinful nation before a holy and yet forgiving God.
You might remember that inside the tabernacle, inside the inner room called the Holy of Holies, or the Most Holy Place, God’s presence is manifested by a cloud, hovering just over the mercy seat. The mercy seat is the lid on the golden box known as the ark of the covenant.
According to God’s plan, once a year—on the Day of Atonement—the high priest made sacrifices for the entire nation. First, he’s to take a bath and then put on those special garments of the high priest. In verses 3-5, he’s told to bring a bull and a ram for his own sin and two goats and a ram for the sins of the nation.
We’re told here in verse 8 that Aaron is to cast lots to designate one of the two goats as “for the Lord”; that is, to be presented to the Lord as a sacrifice. The other goat is called “Azazel,” which means, “the goat that goes away.” This is the scapegoat. I’ll refer to him in a moment.
In verse 11, Aaron is instructed to sacrifice the bull for his own sins and the sins of all the priests. He is to take some of the blood from the bull, along with some hot coals from the altar and two handfuls of incense, into the Most Holy Place. The smoke from the incense will fill the space, preventing Aaron from seeing the full glory of the Lord hovering above the mercy seat.
The Day of Atonement is a day of incredible gravity. Aaron isn’t going in there whistling his favorite tune; he isn’t going to casually approach a holy God.
He had little bells sewn into the bottom fringe of his robe to make sounds as he moved around and, according to one tradition, a rope tied around his ankle. As long as people heard those little bells, they would know Aaron was still alive. And the rope would allow other priests to pull him out of there if God refused his sacrifice and struck him dead.
We read here in verse 14, “He shall take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger on the front of the mercy seat . . . seven times.” Putting the blood on the lid of this ark symbolized the substitutionary death for sins. Inside that box—the ark—were the tablets of stone engraved with the commandments of God. PQ - God was essentially going to view the Israelites’ breaking of the law—their sin—through the blood of the atoning sacrifice.
I imagine as Aaron backed out of the Most Holy Place, his heart would be pounding, but he’s been obedient and forgiven, and he’s still alive to proceed with the ritual.
We’re told in verse 15:
“Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering that is for the people and bring its blood inside the veil and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, sprinkling it over the mercy seat and in front of the mercy seat.”
Then in verses 18-19:
“Then he shall go out to the altar that is before the Lord and make atonement for it, and shall take some of the blood of the bull and some of the blood of the goat, and put it on the horns of the altar all around. And he shall sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times, and cleanse it and consecrate it from the uncleannesses of the people of Israel.”
The next step is crucial in symbolizing the forgiveness of God. After cleansing the tabernacle and its furnishings, Aaron brings forward the living goat, the scapegoat. The Lord says in verse 21:
“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.”
So, the sins of the nation are symbolically transferred to the scapegoat, which is then sent away into the wilderness.
Picture this. Some two million people would be surrounding the tabernacle on Yom Kippur as Aaron sends this goat away, bearing their sins—out of the tabernacle court and far into the wilderness. What relief—and what joy—would follow this special occasion.
And by the way, these two goats—the one dying as a sin offering and the scapegoat—picture the future atonement of Christ, who did both. He died to pay for our sin, and He also carried our sin away. (Psalm 103:11-12)
Keep in mind that immediately the sins of the people of Israel are going to start collecting all over again. Aaron will be up at sunrise the next day. The altar will be prepared and the knives sharpened, and people are going to line up to bring their offerings and sacrifices to the tabernacle once more.
Everybody who stood in that line year after year, century after century, must have longed for the day when a permanent, perfect, and final sacrifice would be offered and the holiness and justice of God would be forever satisfied.
This all pointed to Christ. He is not only our Great High Priest, but He is also the permanent substitutionary Sacrifice. He fully paid for our sins and purchased our forgiveness forever.
Have you ever thought about the fact that there is one piece of furniture missing from the tabernacle? There was no chair anywhere in sight; and that’s because the priests never sat down—their work was never finished.
But listen to the writer of Hebrews, who speaks of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross for our sins. He writes in Hebrews 10:10-12:
We have been sanctified [cleansed] through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. And every priest stands daily at this service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God.
The final day of atonement took place at the cross of Christ, where Jesus paid in full the penalty for our sins. Hebrews 10:12 indicates that He later ascended back to heaven because He “sat down at the right hand of God” the Father.
The right hand pictures the place of divine authority. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the crucified, risen, ascended Savior, now sits in the place of divine authority. His work is finished; you simply have to believe. And if His Word says all you have to do is call upon the name of the Lord and you shall be saved (Romans 10:13), well, you have His word on the matter.
When you trust in Him, you are forgiven forever, and that promise comes directly from the throne of God.