The Day of Atonement
1 The LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they drew near before the LORD and died, 2 and the LORD said to Moses, “Tell Aaron your brother not to come at any time into the Holy Place inside the veil, before the mercy seat that is on the ark, so that he may not die. For I will appear in the cloud over the mercy seat. 3 But in this way Aaron shall come into the Holy Place: with a bull from the herd for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. 4 He shall put on the holy linen coat and shall have the linen undergarment on his body, and he shall tie the linen sash around his waist, and wear the linen turban; these are the holy garments. He shall bathe his body in water and then put them on. 5 And he shall take from the congregation of the people of Israel two male goats for a sin offering, and one ram for a burnt offering.
6 “Aaron shall offer the bull as a sin offering for himself and shall make atonement for himself and for his house. 7 Then he shall take the two goats and set them before the LORD at the entrance of the tent of meeting. 8 And Aaron shall cast lots over the two goats, one lot for the LORD and the other lot for Azazel. 9 And Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the LORD and use it as a sin offering, 10 but the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the LORD to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel.
11 “Aaron shall present the bull as a sin offering for himself, and shall make atonement for himself and for his house. He shall kill the bull as a sin offering for himself. 12 And he shall take a censer full of coals of fire from the altar before the LORD, and two handfuls of sweet incense beaten small, and he shall bring it inside the veil 13 and put the incense on the fire before the LORD, that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy seat that is over the testimony, so that he does not die. 14 And he shall take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger on the front of the mercy seat on the east side, and in front of the mercy seat he shall sprinkle some of the blood with his finger seven times.
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. 16 Thus he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleanness of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins. And so he shall do for the tent of meeting, which dwells with them in the midst of their uncleanness. 17 No one may be in the tent of meeting from the time he enters to make atonement in the Holy Place until he comes out and has made atonement for himself and for his house and for all the assembly of Israel. 18 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. 19 And he shall sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times, and cleanse it and consecrate it from the uncleanness of the people of Israel.
20 “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. 21 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. 22 The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness.
The Story Continues
God’s people became tired of waiting for Moses and persuaded Moses’ brother, Aaron, to make an idol. Then they indulged in a wild party to celebrate the new god they had made for themselves. So even while God was giving His laws to Moses at the top of the mountain, the people were busy breaking them at the bottom.
God does not impose Himself on people who do not want Him. He told the people that they could go into the land of Canaan where they would enjoy freedom and prosperity, but He would not go with them.
To their great credit, the people then recognized that the presence of God was more important than freedom and prosperity. But how could God’s presence return to people who had so obviously sinned against His Law?
Over the next seven months, the people followed God’s instructions for building the tabernacle. This was a mobile worship center, separated into different areas by a series of curtains, and containing various pieces of symbolic furniture.
At the center was an area called the Most Holy Place. On one day in each year, the high priest was to go there and offer a sacrifice. Then, God promised, His presence would come down.
If you ever find yourself in a court of law, you probably will want to hire an attorney to present your case. Law courts are intimidating places, and they operate under some fairly complex rules, so you need the help of an attorney to represent you before the judge and speak on your behalf.
In the Old Testament, the priests did something similar in the presence of God. They operated in a mobile worship center called the tabernacle.
At the center of the tabernacle was the Most Holy Place, which was screened off from view by a heavy curtain. Inside was the Ark of the Covenant. It was a wooden chest, carried on poles, with a lid on top. Rising from the lid were two golden figures of Cherubim—angels representing the judgment of God who had guarded the entrance to the Garden of Eden. Between these two figures was an area known as the “atonement cover” or the “mercy seat.”
God had said that He would meet with the High Priest in the most holy place on the Day of Atonement that was celebrated once a year (Leviticus 16:2, Exodus 25:22).
A Five Act Drama
God often teaches us through pictures and the Day of Atonement is His greatest visual aid. What happened was like a drama in five acts, each one pointing us to forward to Jesus Christ, and helping us to understand the significance of His death on the cross.
Act 1: The Priest Appears
If you saw the high priest you would immediately have known that he was one of the most important people in the land. His magnificent robes displayed the dignity of his office.
But on the Day of Atonement, the high priest discarded his robes, and appeared in the streets wearing a simple white cloth. People would line the route as he made his way toward the tabernacle like a boxer entering the ring.
Act 2: The Priest Prepares
Before the high priest could enter the presence of God to offer a sacrifice for the sins of the people, his first priority was to deal with his own sins. He took the blood of a slaughtered bull into the most holy place and sprinkled it on the mercy seat.
Act 3: Atonement Is Made
Then two goats were brought forward. One was slaughtered and the high priest took its blood behind the curtain, and sprinkled it on the mercy seat, between the two golden figures of the Cherubim that represented God’s judgment. Justice was satisfied and mercy was released when the sacrifice was made.
Just as in the garden, God had diverted the curse away from Adam and onto the ground, so now, God was ready to allow the death sentence to be passed on an animal instead of the sinner.
Act 4: Sin Is Confessed
What happened next was the most dramatic part of the whole Day of Atonement.
The live goat was brought forward. God had instructed the high priest to “lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites” (Leviticus 16:20–21).
I have often struggled to offer a coherent prayer as a wriggling two-year-old tried desperately to escape my clutches. But such problems are nothing compared with what the high priest had to do here! He had to confess all the sins of Israel while holding onto a live goat with both hands!
The high priest identified specific sins in his prayer, and if you had been in the crowd, you would have recognized some of the sins he confessed as your own.
As the high priest prayed, an act of transfer took place. The guilt for these sins was removed from the people, and laid on the goat. The high priest “put them on the goat’s head” (16:21). So at the end of his prayer, there was one very guilty goat!
Act 5: Guilt Is Removed
Then God told the high priest to “send the goat away into the desert in the care of a man appointed for the task” (16:21).
Imagine the scene as the goat is led away, between the tents and then outside the camp and into the desert. You watch until the man and the goat are only a dot on the horizon, and then you cannot see them at all.
I cannot imagine a more powerful visual presentation of the gospel. This five-act drama was like a dress rehearsal for the real performance that took place when Jesus Christ came into the world. It was a like a preview, telling us what to look for and what to expect when He came.
Run forward through fifteen hundred years of history and you move from the dress rehearsal to the opening night, from the preview to the main event, featuring Jesus Christ in the role of the High Priest.
Act 1: Christ Appears
In the New Testament another High Priest appears. He is not a son of Aaron like all the others: This Priest is the Son of God! His glory is far greater than the splendid clothes worn by the high priest. He shared the glory of the Father before the world began. But just as the High Priest discarded his magnificent clothing on the Day of Atonement, so Christ laid aside His glory, and took the form of a servant. He was wrapped in strips of cloth and laid in a manger.
Act 2: Christ Prepares
Jesus did the will of the Father and fulfilled all the work that the Father had given Him to do. He was what every other priest wished he could be. He lived the life that no other high priest was able to live. His perfect life qualified Him to achieve what all the other high priests could only illustrate.
Act 3: Christ Makes Atonement
After three years of His public ministry, Jesus was arrested and sentenced to be crucified. On the cross, he became the sacrifice for our sins. The judgment of God was diverted away from us and onto Him. When His blood was shed, God’s justice was satisfied, and God’s mercy was released.
Act 4: We Confess Our Sins
This is where you have a part to play in the drama. Just as the high priest laid both hands on the head of the live goat and confessed the sins of the people, God invites you to “lay hold” of Jesus Christ in an act of faith and confess your sins to Him.
The sacrifice offered by Jesus is sufficient to cover the sins of the whole world. But it is not until you come to Him in faith and confession that His sacrifice is applied to your sins in particular. Have you done that?
When you do, God counts the guilt of your sin as being transferred to Jesus Christ. It is laid on Him and included in the sin for which he died.
Act 5: Our Sins Are Removed
When our sins have been laid on Christ, God promises that he will take them as far from us as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12).
Try to imagine a person who has been struggling with a troubled conscience. Let’s call her Sarah. She has made a foolish choice and wonders if God can ever forgive her. Sarah is in the crowd watching the great drama of the Day of Atonement. The following day, she is still struggling with her conscience, when a friend comes to talk with her.
Sarah, think about what you saw yesterday. What happened when the high priest grabbed that goat by the head?
He confessed our sins.
And did he confess your sin?
Yes, he did, and when he spoke about it, I felt so ashamed.
What happened to the sins that he confessed?
They were laid on the goat’s head.
And what happened to the goat?
It was taken away.
How far was it taken, Sarah?
Farther than I could see.
Take that picture and apply it to your own life. Can you picture your sins being taken away into the distance and out of sight? God wants you to know that through the finished work of Christ your sin is forgiven and your guilt is removed.
Pause for Prayer
Thank You that the Lord Jesus Christ has come into the world to be my High Priest. Thank You that He was willing to lay aside His glory and to be born in a manger. Thank You for His perfect life that qualified Him to make atonement. Thank You that He has made atonement by laying down His life and shedding His blood.
I believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and, right now, trust in Him as my Savior and Lord. I confess my sins to You. [Take time to confess your sins to the Lord.]
Thank You that Christ died for these sins. Thank You for taking these sins from me. Help me now to enjoy the peace of knowing that You have taken them as far from me as the east is from the west, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
- If you had been in the crowd on the Day of Atonement, what would have impressed you most?
- If Billy Graham or Mother Teresa had been the high priest or priestess, each would have needed to make atonement for his or her own sins before bringing others’ sin before God. On a scale of 1–10 (1 being sinless, 10 being completely evil), where would you put each of them? Where would you put yourself?
- What kind of a case could you make for your innocence before God’s Law?
- What would you have felt if you had been in the crowd on the Day of Atonement when the goat disappeared over the horizon?