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.
God’s people discovered that the God who loves them is holy. As sinners, it is not possible for us to get near Him and survive. There must be an atonement, which is what it takes to put right something that is wrong. Atonement for sin is made through a sacrifice, a substitute, a life laid down. In this session, we are going to see how the atonement was accomplished and how it gets applied to us.
If you ever find yourself in a court of law, you will probably want to hire an attorney to present your case. Law courts are intimidating places, and they operate under some complex rules. So you need an attorney to speak on your behalf.
In the Old Testament, the priests did something similar. They represented the people before God and spoke on their behalf. They served in a mobile worship center called the tabernacle. It was separated into different areas by a series of curtains and contained various pieces of symbolic furniture.
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, 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. Between these two figures was an area known as the atonement cover or the mercy seat.
A Five-Act Drama
Once every year on the Day of Atonement, the high priest would go behind the curtain into the Most Holy Place. God Himself would come down, just as He had done on Mount Sinai. He did not make Himself visible, but He appeared in a cloud over the mercy seat and met with the high priest (Leviticus 16:2).
God often teaches us through pictures, and what happened on the Day of Atonement was like a great drama in five acts, each pointing 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, the kind of clothing the lowest servant would wear. People would line the route to view the spectacle of the high priest dressed as a common slave 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.
This must have made a powerful impression on the people. The high priest, holding one of the most dignified positions in the land, was saying, “I stand in need of a sacrifice myself.” The high priest was recognizing, as every other priest, pastor, or religious leader would always have to admit, “I have sins of my own, and therefore I am in no position to deal with yours.”
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, which 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 allowed 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 second goat was brought forward. God had instructed the high priest to “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” (16:21).
In churches today, when there is a service of dedication or baptism for an infant, the pastor or priest will hold the child as he says a prayer. This can cause some problems with children, thrust into the hands of a stranger, who understandably do not want to be separated from their parents.
I have often struggled to offer a coherent prayer as a wriggling infant tried desperately to escape my clutches. But such problems are nothing compared to what the high priest had to do here. He had to confess all the sins of Israel while holding onto a live goat!
The high priest identified specific sins in his prayer, and if you were in the crowd, you might have heard a prayer similar to this: “Almighty God, we confess our idolatry. We have loved Your gifts more than we have loved You. We confess our envy. We have seen what You have given to others and have coveted it for ourselves. We also confess our anger. We have been short-tempered and resentful toward others…”
Since the high priest had to confess all the sins of the people, this would have been a long prayer. But he prayed in such a way that the people would recognize the sins he confessed as their own. If you had been standing in the crowd, eventually you would have thought, yes, that sin is one of mine.
When the high priest confessed the sins of the people with his hands laid on the head of the goat, an act of transfer took place in which God moved the guilt of these sins onto the goat. “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” (16:21). So now you have one guilty goat!
Act 5: Guilt Is Removed
What happened next is a marvelous picture of how God deals with our sins when they have been confessed and their guilt has been transferred. God told the high priest to send the goat away “into the wilderness” (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 preview showing us what God would do when Jesus Christ came into the world.
From the Preview to the Main Event
Run forward through fifteen hundred years of history and you arrive at the main event, featuring Jesus Christ in the role of the High Priest who came to make atonement for our sins. The Old Testament tells us what this would take; the New Testament tells us how this was done.
Act 1: Christ Appears
Jesus Christ is our great High Priest! He is the Son of God, and His glory is far greater than the splendid clothes worn by any other 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 Christ lived a life that is different than any other life that has ever been lived. Jesus did the will of the Father and fulfilled all the work the Father had given him to do. “He committed no sin” (1 Peter 2:22), and so He needed no sacrifice for Himself. Having lived the perfect life, Jesus was qualified to achieve what all the other 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. When His blood was shed, God’s justice was satisfied, and God’s mercy was released. Our great High Priest made atonement for us and opened a new and living way into the presence of God.
Act 4: We Confess Our Sins
Remember, there were two goats on the Day of Atonement. One was sacrificed, and the other was led into the wilderness. Both of these animals help us to understand what Christ does for His people. He is the one who sacrificed His life as the atonement for our sins, and He is also the one who takes our guilt away.
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. When you do, your guilt will be taken away.
Act 5: Our Sins Are Removed
When your sins have been laid on Christ, God promises that He will take them as far from you “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, but she is struggling with her conscience when a friend comes to talk with her.
“Sarah, think about what you have just seen. What happened when the high priest grabbed that goat by the head?”
“He confessed our sins.”
“And did he confess your sin, Sarah?”
“Yes, he did, and I felt so ashamed.”
“What happened, Sarah, to the sins he confessed?”
“They were laid on the goat’s head.”
“And what happened to the goat?” Sarah’s friend asks.
“It was taken away.”
“How far was it taken, Sarah?”
“Farther than my eyes could see.”
Take that picture and apply it to your life. Can you visualize your sin being taken so far from you that you can no longer see it and it can never come back? God wants you to know that through the finished work of Christ your sin can be forgiven and your guilt can be removed.
The Day of Atonement illustrates how Jesus dealt with our sins. When His blood was shed, mercy was released for sinners. The atonement is applied to your sins, in particular, when by faith you lay hold of Christ, believing in Him and confessing yours sins to Him. God will transfer the guilt of your sin to Christ as you lay hold of Him by faith. And when God transfers your guilt, He removes it from you so that you can look up to God with the joy and freedom of someone who is truly forgiven.
Pause or 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 did this by laying down His life and shedding His blood.
I confess my sins to You… [Take time to confess your sins to the Lord.]
Thank You that Christ died for my sins. 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 my Lord. Amen.
- What was the role of the priests in the Old Testament?
- What did the Day of Atonement point to? What does it help us understand?
- Why is no priest, pastor or religious leader in a position to deal with your sins?
- How was guilt transferred and removed on the Day of Atonement?
- What is our part to play in the drama?