A Serious Holiday (Leviticus 16:1-34)

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I have recently enjoyed some blessed holiday time with my family. We travelled together to the coast to have some fun in the sun. I slept later than normal, did more recreational reading than is my norm, ate more food than I should have, and pretty much loafed for a week. It was a good holiday, but not one that I would call serious. Let me explain.

In December, I usually take some leave, but rather than going away (and jostling with the crowds) we stay at home and I do a lot of work on the house and sometimes in the garden. It is what I call a serious holiday. I get up early, have my devotions and tackle the list of household repairs and maintenance that needs to be done. This usually includes painting and cleaning out my shed(s). As a family we do a spring clean of the house. Our normal routine is broken up and in that sense we take a break and get a break. In many ways, even though after this “holiday” we feel physically fatigued, at the same time we also are invigorated. It is a serious holiday that results in a different kind of rest; one in which we feel productive as our lives seem to be once again in order. Wholeness has been the result of our serious holiday.

In many ways, this is precisely the purpose behind the Day of Atonement, as prescribed in Leviticus 16. This was the most important day in the Jewish calendar. John Currid notes that “this is the great day of deliverance; it is the culmination of the worship of Israel for the entire year.”1

This prescribed holyday occurred some six months after Passover, which itself was a very significant day in the life of the nation of Israel. But the Day of Atonement was such a significant holyday that it simply became known amongst the Jews as “The Day.” It was a day marked by fasting, prayer, reflection, repentance and rest. It was a serious holiday. And it was so serious because it was a day in the year set aside for a spiritual spring clean. It was a day prescribed by God for the nation of Israel to experience corporate forgiveness from a year’s worth of the uncleanness of sin—not some sin, but all sin.

After such a holiday the Israelites probably did not rave about the great time that they had, but recounted with great joy and with a sense of renewed purpose that the past 24 hours had been very productive. They rejoiced that, once again, things seemed to be in order.

The book of Leviticus is the recorded history of the early days of Israel after her redemption. In it, God gave laws for the purpose of setting things in order. After some 430 years in Egypt, the children of Israel were plagued with spiritual disorder. While in Egypt they were guilty of idolatry, as evidenced by the events of Exodus 32. Their worship of the one true God left much to be desired. Therefore, as He always does, God put things in order by His Word (cf. Genesis 1:1-3ff).

Leviticus was the worship manual revealed by God to give order to the commanded devotion of His people. They were to worship the one true God in the way He prescribed. That is, they were to worship Him in an orderly fashion.

But it was not merely the tabernacle worship with which God was concerned; He desired for them to live orderly at all times. That is why God prescribed what they were to eat, how they were to practice personal and household hygiene, etc. In other words, God wanted them to reflect His character—His wholeness and orderliness—in the kitchen, in the field, in the bedroom, and even in the maternity ward. The seven worship manuals within the overall manual of Leviticus were the means to give order to God’s people.

But, as we well know, because we live in a fallen world, that which is orderly tends by default to disorder. Cosmos becomes chaos—very rapidly.

Chapters 1—15 of Leviticus highlight the brokenness and disorder of a fallen world and the need for wholeness and order. This was one function of the tabernacle, which was constructed in the midst of Israel. It served as the dwelling place of God. It was precisely designed (according to the pattern in heaven), and every minute detail of its construction was to be observed. By God’s grace it was indeed so built, and God was pleased to dwell there. When an Israelite looked at the tabernacle, he would see what wholeness, order—and, therefore, holiness—looked like. It was the epitome of order. In fact, that is why even the arrangement of the tribes around the tabernacle—as detailed in the book of Numbers—was prescribed. Order was to be the order of the day!

But as much as the people of Israel tried, they could not maintain the order. The prescribed sacrifices throughout the year were testimony to this. When sin occurred, disorder was experienced in their relationship with God, and so they brought the prescribed sacrifice in faith that God would accept it and put things back together.

As they went through their daily experiences, they were repeatedly reminded that all was not well. After all, the detailed instructions with reference to “clean” and “unclean,” and what was acceptable worship and what was not, were so minute that no one could perfectly fulfil these laws. And so, even with the best of intentions, a worshipper would realise how far short he fell from the glory of God. In other words, disorder was inescapable. Cleanliness seemed to be illusive.

To further add burden to burden, it would seem that the sacrifices prescribed only covered inadvertent, unintentional sins. But what about those sins that someone committed intentionally? Was there any hope for them to be forgiven? Were they condemned to not only temporal but also eternal disorder and brokenness? Leviticus 16 provided the remedy for this. It prescribed the means for forgiveness of all sins. “The uncleanness will not just disappear, it must be cleansed; the offences will not just go away, they must be taken away. And that is what the Day of Atonement is designed to accomplish.”2

As noted, the Day of Atonement served as an opportunity for a spiritual spring clean. This very serious holiday was a God-ordained means for His people to do some serious self-inventory for the purpose of repenting of their sins, and to experience and appreciate the forgiveness displayed and declared by the work of the high priest who “on that day, more than any other . . . would act as mediator between God and the people.”3

This day was God’s provision for His people to experience hope and to receive help in the midst of the reality of disorder and uncleanness. The aim of this day was “to make possible God’s continued presence among His people.”4 That, I am sure you will agree, made this a very serious holiday.

The new covenant believer is, of course, no longer under obligation to observe Yom Kippur. The reason is because Jesus Christ fulfilled the types and shadows to which the Day of Atonement pointed. He is our Yom Kippur. Nevertheless, as we have seen time and again, there is much relevance in these old covenant chapters for us.

In this study, I trust that we will once again honestly come to terms with the fact that our lives are broken by sin and that there is far more disorder in life than order. There is more which is unclean than which is clean. And as we do so, may we come to see the blessed truth that God has provided in His Son the means for forgiveness, for wholeness and for order. May this be the day in which the pictures and prophecies of the Day come to personal realisation in our lives.

A Solemn Day

Our text opens by establishing for us the chronological context of this chapter.

Now the LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they offered profane fire before the LORD, and died; and the LORD said to Moses: “Tell Aaron your brother not to come at just any time into the Holy Place inside the veil, before the mercy seat which is on the ark, lest he die; for I will appear in the cloud above the mercy seat.”

(Leviticus 16:1-2)

“The death of the two sons of Aaron” is recorded in chapter 10, and so it is evident that this material was actually revealed by God to Moses earlier than where it appears. You will recall that the sons of Aaron—Nadab and Abihu—were killed as they offered “profane fire” to the Lord (10:1-2). God executed swift judgement upon them as a means of emphasising how holy He is and therefore how seriously they should take His Word. As an aside, it is vital to our worship that we understand that God’s holiness makes Him dangerous. But He is also love (1 John 4:8), and therefore He gave to His people these laws so He would not, in fact, have to kill them!

I believe that there are at least three reasons for the rather abrupt placement of this account here.

First, in Exodus 30:9-10, God revealed that there would be a special day in which the high priest would bring blood into the tabernacle to make atonement. In that passage, there is a strict prohibition against the offering of “strange incense” on the altar before the veil. Since there was already a history of such an offence, this word is very timely as God begins to reveal the prescriptions for that prophesied day.

Second, God was protecting Aaron and subsequent high priests against the presumptuous tendency to worship in their own way. He gave a solemn warning that He is holy and His Word must be heeded. God was instructing them that no work of man can supplement the glorious work which He has done for sinners.’5

Third, it is placed here strategically (pedagogically) because, at this point in the history of the nation, there was a need for relief. I appreciate the words of Currid who writes, “It is uncertain why it is placed there, although perhaps it is there as a ray of hope to the people of Israel. The laws dealing with skin diseases seem to go on almost ad infinitum, and certainly the Hebrews would have felt the weight of those laws. The burden of the law has become almost unbearable. But now the author describes the Day of Atonement by which the sins of Israel are dealt with. This is the great day of deliverance.”6 Rooker adds, “Leviticus 16 . . . is the consummation of the previous fifteen chapters and provides the spiritual energy and motivation to carry out the imperatives of Leviticus 17—27.”7 In other words, this placement here is purposeful.

We can learn from this that, until we feel the weight of our sin, we will see little need for deliverance. Until we see the solemnity of our sinfulness in the light of God’s holiness, we will never be serious about the work of the Saviour. And until we experience justification we are not prepared for sanctification.

A Structured Day

In vv. 3-28 we learn that the Day was a very structured day. In the longest section of this chapter we are given the basic requirements for the Day (vv. 3-5), a brief summary of what was required (vv. 6-10) and the fuller details of the Day (vv. 11-28).

After giving a solemn warning with reference to when the high priest could enter the Most Holy Place, God then invited, as it were, the high priest into this place. But he could only come alone and could only enter according to God’s rules.

In terms of the actual priestly ministry on the Day, it may be helpful to note that there are two major sections within this larger section. First, vv. 3-19 largely prescribe the regulations concerning the actions of the high priest when he was alone (in private before the Lord in the Holy Place and in the Most Holy Place). Second, vv. 20-28 have reference primarily to his more public priestly work on the Day. For those desiring a more technical outline of the passage I offer the following outline suggested by Derek Tidball. You will note that it, as with chapter 15, is a chiasmus.

A1 Prologue: a solemn warning from God (1-2)

B1 Drawing near: instructions from God (3-14)

Preparation of the high priest (3-4)
Preparation of the sacrifices (5-10)
Preparation of the way into the Most Holy Place (11-14)

C  Making atonement: purification from God (15-22)

The goat that was sacrificed (15-19)
The goat that was set free (20-22)

B2 Taking leave: withdrawing from God (23-28)

Changing back (23-24a)
Renewing dedication (24b-25)
Returning to camp (26)
Disposing of waste (27-28)

A2 Epilogue: a lasting ordinance from God (29-34)8

Aaron’s Preparation

Aaron (and any subsequent high priest) needed to be properly prepared for ministry on the Day of Atonement.

Thus Aaron shall come into the Holy Place: with the blood of a young bull as a sin offering, and of a ram as a burnt offering. He shall put the holy linen tunic and the linen trousers on his body; he shall be girded with a linen sash, and with the linen turban he shall be attired. These are holy garments. Therefore he shall wash his body in water, and put them on. And he shall take from the congregation of the children of Israel two kids of the goats as a sin offering, and one ram as a burnt offering.

(Leviticus 16:3-5)

The high priest could only enter the Holy Place on the Day with sacrifices. The first sacrifices prescribed were for himself and for “his house.” You will recall that the sin offering required of priests was a young bull and that some of the blood of this sacrifice was to be sprinkled on the veil seven times. However, as we will see, in this case the blood was to be sprinkled on the Mercy Seat.

The high priest was also to bring a ram for a burnt offering on his behalf. This would be offered later in the day.

Before embarking on these duties, he was to wash his entire body and then be clothed in the white undergarments, tunic, sash and turban. Incidentally, on this day the high priest would spend considerable time in water, making sure that he was cleansed. In fact, in postbiblical Israel, the high priest would spend seven days preparing for the Day!

This clothing was in contradistinction to the more ornate regular attire of the high priest. There is much discussion about the reason for this and I would suggest that there are two primary reasons.

First, since the high priest was entering into the Holy of Holies, this dress symbolised purity. Often in Scripture, white linen speaks of righteousness, and no doubt that is significant here. The high priest was dressed impeccably as he entered the presence of God.

But there is a second reason for this prescribed dressing down: When the high priest wore his vestments he was dressed like a king. He was speaking with great authority. But on this day the high priest was also offering sacrifices for his own sin and thus this prescribed wardrobe was quite literally for the purpose of dressing down. Whereas, in the regular high priestly garment, “beautiful coloured materials, intricate embroidery, gold and jewelry made him look like a king. On the day of atonement he looked more like a slave.”9

This reminds us of the passage in Philippians 2 where Christ is described as laying aside His royal robes and taking upon Himself the form of a servant. What condescension! What amazing love!

Aaron’s Presentation

After the priest had been clothed in these garments, he was to sacrifice the bull as his personal sin offering.

“Aaron shall offer the bull as a sin offering, which is for himself, and make atonement for himself and for his house. He shall take the two goats and present them before the LORD at the door of the tabernacle of meeting. Then Aaron shall cast lots for the two goats: one lot for the LORD and the other lot for the scapegoat. And Aaron shall bring the goat on which the LORD’s lot fell, and offer it as a sin offering. But the goat on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the LORD, to make atonement upon it, and to let it go as the scapegoat into the wilderness.

“And Aaron shall bring the bull of the sin offering, which is for himself, and make atonement for himself and for his house, and shall kill the bull as the sin offering which is for himself. Then he shall take a censer full of burning coals of fire from the altar before the LORD, with his hands full of sweet incense beaten fine, and bring it inside the veil. And he shall put the incense on the fire before the LORD, that the cloud of incense may cover the mercy seat that is on the Testimony, lest he die. He shall take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger on the mercy seat on the east side; and before the mercy seat he shall sprinkle some of the blood with his finger seven times.

“Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering, which is for the people, bring its blood inside the veil, do with that blood as he did with the blood of the bull, and sprinkle it on the mercy seat and before the mercy seat. So he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleanness of the children of Israel, and because of their transgressions, for all their sins; and so he shall do for the tabernacle of meeting which remains among them in the midst of their uncleanness. There shall be no man in the tabernacle of meeting when he goes in to make atonement in the Holy Place, until he comes out, that he may make atonement for himself, for his household, and for all the assembly of Israel. And 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. Then he shall sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times, cleanse it, and consecrate it from the uncleanness of the children of Israel.

“And when he has made an end of atoning for the Holy Place, the tabernacle of meeting, and the altar, he shall bring the live goat. Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, confess over it all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, concerning all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and shall send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a suitable man. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to an uninhabited land; and he shall release the goat in the wilderness.

“Then Aaron shall come into the tabernacle of meeting, shall take off the linen garments which he put on when he went into the Holy Place, and shall leave them there. And he shall wash his body with water in a holy place, put on his garments, come out and offer his burnt offering and the burnt offering of the people, and make atonement for himself and for the people. The fat of the sin offering he shall burn on the altar. And he who released the goat as the scapegoat shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward he may come into the camp. The bull for the sin offering and the goat for the sin offering, whose blood was brought in to make atonement in the Holy Place, shall be carried outside the camp. And they shall burn in the fire their skins, their flesh, and their offal. Then he who burns them shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward he may come into the camp.”

(Leviticus 16:6-28)

Having sacrificed the bull, the high priest took some of the blood and entered the Holy Place. As he did so, he carried with him a shovel full of coals from the Altar of Burnt Offering, as well as some incense. As he (trembling, no doubt) passed beyond the veil he put the fine-ground incense on the coals, and a literal smoke screen was formed, which symbolised his need to be protected from the very presence of God (v. 13—compare this with the record of Isaiah 6). Then, and only then, did he throw the blood of his sin offering on the Mercy Seat (v. 14).

Place of Propitiation

The Mercy Seat was the covering of the Ark of the Covenant. “Seat” perhaps is not the best translation, but in light of Psalm 99:1, it is an appropriate one. “Place of covering” or “place of propitiation” is probably a more literal term. Nevertheless, this represented the presence of God and it was a dangerous place.

Angelic Amazement

The golden cherubim were crafted to look downward. Of course, underneath the “seat’” or “covering” were the copies of the Ten Commandments. The problem was that God’s people had broken these and it was for this purpose that blood sacrifices were required for atonement. The rules of relationship had been broken by God’s people and so estrangement from God was the reality. But the cherubim looked down, and though they were expecting wrath, what they saw was mercy. They saw reconciliation rather than retribution. No wonder Peter could write with reference to our salvation that it is something that angels desire to look into (1 Peter 1:12).

The angels are amazed by God’s grace. Are you?

Atonement for the People and the Place

Once the priest had experienced atonement him (the proof was that he was still alive!) then, and only then, could he offer the sin offering on behalf of the people (v. 15).

This was extremely significant, for the text tells us that not only were the people atoned for but so was the Holy Place itself. In other words, not only did the people need to be made clean (v. 16) but so did the dwelling place of God. After all, for an entire year sinners had come to this place and sacrifices had been offered. No doubt, due to the intricacies of the various laws there were times when the priest and people would have failed in a regulation with the result that “uncleanness” would have defiled the place. But this serious holiday was the means to set things once again in order. If I can say this reverently, the Day of Atonement was a kind of reset button for the dwelling place of God.

Comprehensive Atonement

Verse 16 is very significant in that it makes clear that, on the Day, all kinds of sins were atoned for. All kinds of sins were propitiated. The word translated “transgressions” means “rebellion” and is a strong word describing sin. Rooker comments that “the word . . . is the most grievous word for sin in the Old Testament. The word refers to sin in its grossest manifestation. It indicates a breach of relationships between two parties . . . . a covenant treaty violation.”10

In other words, the sin offering on the Day, covered more than unintentional sins. This was a day of comprehensive forgiveness. It was a day in which those who had broken covenant with God and therefore who deserved to be cut off for all eternity were able to receive full forgiveness.

The word translated “atonement” means “to cover,” “to ransom,” or “to rescue by means of a substitute.” Small wonder that the Day of Atonement became known simply as “the Day”! This was serious holiday indeed. Let me ask you, will today be that kind of a day for you?

Atoning the Altar

There was one more action on the high priest’s part before he moved to the more public stage on this day and we find it in vv. 18-19: “And 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. Then he shall sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times, cleanse it, and consecrate it from the uncleanness of the children of Israel.”

After the high priest had been at the Mercy Seat (a great place to be!), he was to exit and to apply the blood of the sin offerings to “the altar that is before the Lord” (v.18). There is some debate as to which altar this was. Perhaps it was the Altar of Incense, which stood just before the veil. This is a very real possibility, for the reference to this in Exodus 30:9-10 is irrefutable. But perhaps the obscure phrase in v. 16—“so shall he do for the tabernacle of meeting”—refers to this action.

Most likely, the altar referred to here was the Altar of Burnt Offering, the great bronze altar on which all sacrifices were offered. Regardless, it is clear that the high priest was working from the inside out.

The Scapegoat

Once the priest was outside in the courtyard, what he did was very public.

“And when he has made an end of atoning for the Holy Place, the tabernacle of meeting, and the altar, he shall bring the live goat. Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, confess over it all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, concerning all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and shall send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a suitable man. . . . And he who released the goat as the scapegoat shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward he may come into the camp.”

(Leviticus 16:20-21, 26)

On the Day of Atonement the people were to supply two goats to the priests. They were to be the best of goats—without blemish. The high priest would then cast lots over them, with the result that one would become the sin offering that would lose its life at the altar, its blood applied to the Mercy Seat and the Altar, its fat offered to the Lord (v. 25), and its carcase burned outside the camp. The other goat would be labelled Azazel. This word was translated as “scapegoat” in 1530 by William Tyndale in his first edition of the English Bible, and that translation has survived in English Bibles ever since. The word, however, has always been at the centre of much discussion. Without going into all of the opinions, the Hebrew word literally means “the goat that goes away.”

What is of great significance is where it went and why it was sent away.

The Where

The text tells us that the scapegoat went to “the wilderness” (v. 21), which is further described as “an uninhabited land” (v.22). In other words, the “goat of going away” was banished to “a land of no return where the animal will be totally separated from the covenant community.”11

Some have argued that the term “uninhabited” implies a rocky cliff, and so in later years the practice was adopted of the goat being led to a cliff where a stone was tied around its neck and it was pushed backward to fall to its death. The purpose of this was to ensure that the goat did not return to the camp. But our text simply informs us that this scapegoat was to experience an entire removal from the community.

The Why

But why was it sent away? Verse 21 helps us with the answer: “Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, confess over it all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, concerning all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and shall send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a suitable man.”

Before the scapegoat was led away, the high priest would place both his hands on the head of the goat12 and “confess over it all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, concerning all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat.” This, of course, was symbolic of what is called transference. This is not psychological babble; it was a very real demonstration that the people of God needed a substitute, quite literally, to take away their sins. This is the why of the scapegoat. The scapegoat symbolically carried away the sins of the people.

Grace then Confession

It is important for us to note the order here. The confession of sins was only made after there had been the initial experience of grace. That is, the death of the substitute was followed by conviction and confession. Rushdoony captures the significance of this when he writes, “Confession is tied always to atonement. Grace brings forth confession, because grace clearly reveals to us our sin and lawlessness.”13

We will only confess our sins and seek repentance once we realise that Christ has died as our substitute.

You will note that three words are used to describe the comprehensive forgiveness that was being offered to self-confessed sinners (v. 21). This public ceremony was the means of driving home to the people both conviction and hope.

Again, what had transpired previously had pretty much occurred behind closed doors. In fact, it occurred behind the tent walls and behind the veil. The people were not privy to this. Only the high priest and God Himself had witnessed this. And, of course, that was sufficient.

But with this ceremony, God very graciously and kindly gave a public demonstration of the forgiveness that He was offering and affecting. This very public ceremony served as “a powerful visual aid that demonstrated the reality of sin and the need to eliminate it.”14 God is love! What a merciful condescension to soothe sensitive and sin-burdened consciences!

In other words, not only was sin propitiated (i.e. God’s wrath was satisfied by means of sacrifice), but it was also expiated (i.e. the guilt of sin was actually removed by means of sacrifice). We see this in what follows.

Someone was chosen to then lead the scapegoat into the wilderness, to an “uninhabited land” where the goat was released. The picture here is not, of course, freedom for the goat (he was, as it were, covenantally “cut off”) but rather the freedom secured by the sinner through the sacrifice of a substitute. In the light of this, it mattered little on which goat the lot fell. Both were sacrificed.

In the case of the goat that was slain at the tabernacle, its life was the means of propitiation. As its blood was placed on the Mercy Seat, God’s wrath upon His covenant-breaking people was appeased and deflected as it was meted out upon the unblemished substitutionary sacrifice. In the case of the scapegoat, it too was sacrificed as it expiated or carried away the sins of the ones that it represented. I would urge you to realise that both aspects are necessary for atonement for our sins. They must be both propitiated and expiated. The penalty of death must be paid and their claim must be carried away. Thanks be to God that, through the Lord Jesus Christ, our sins are removed from us as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12).

Consider these words from Micah: “He will again have compassion on us, and will subdue our iniquities. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19).

Let me emphasise that the scapegoat represented freedom—not for it but for repentant sinners. And this can be applied to those who believe on Christ, our Scapegoat, who suffered outside the camp for us (Hebrews 13:13). As Rushdoony notes, “The consequence of atonement is freedom. This deliverance is a freedom from the sin and guilt of our past. Only with this freedom can we find ourselves able to use the past successfully in forging the future. Only with the atonement is it possible for all things to work together for us in Christ.”15

Final Procedures

Verses 23-28 detail the final details that were to be carried out on the Day.

After the completion of these private and public rituals the high priest was to go back into the tabernacle where he would undress, wash and put on his normal high priestly garments. He would go from humiliation to exaltation. The high priest looked different after his atonement. He had, as it were, a new set of clothes.

It had been suggested by some that the reason for this disrobing was that, since the high priest had been in the presence of holiness, he now must shed such holiness since he was once again to have contact with a sinful and broken world. I’m not sure I agree with that. What I do know is that, at the very least, what we learn here is that the effects of the Day were to linger but the performance did not.

Let me apply this for a moment.

The cross of Christ was a once-for-all event in history. It will not be repeated and does not need to be (see Romans 10:1-13). But its effects linger. The gospel of the grace of God is to be preached and we are to live in its light every day. It is not a new experience of the cross that we need but rather an increasing appreciation of it that is our greatest need. The “deeper Christian life” is the product of a deeper appreciation of the enormity of the once for all Day of Atonement that occurred in Palestine nearly two thousand years ago.

When we experience the atonement, we will “dress” differently (see Ephesians 4:17-24; Romans 13:12-14). Chapters 17ff of Leviticus are in fact about sanctification as the result of the justification of chapter 16. Chapters 1—15 detail the Cleanliness Code, and chapters 17—27 detail the Holiness Code, with chapter 16 acting as a hinge between the two.

After washing and changing his garments, the high priest offered the burnt offerings both for himself and the people. This is said also to “make an atonement for the people.” It would seem that the reason for this offering was to indicate renewed consecration after having experienced forgiveness. “The presentation of the burnt offerings would remind Israel that receiving forgiveness had to be accompanied by both a change of heart and an amendment of life.”16

The final verses in this section highlight that the one who led the scapegoat into the wilderness was to change his clothes and wash both himself and the clothes before coming back into the camp. Likewise, after the carcasses of the sin offering had been burned outside the camp, the one responsible was to change his clothes and wash before reentering the camp (v.28).

All of this simply underscores the fact that these individuals had been rendered unclean by their contact with that which had borne their sins. Therefore, they had to be declared clean lest they defile the camp. This certainly highlights the reality of God’s transferring sin to the substitute. In other words, it was not simply a matter of theoretical import; it was expressing the reality of something other than the sinner becoming sin on behalf of guilty sinners (see 2 Corinthians 5:21).

A Sabbath Day

In the closing verses the emphasis shifts from the duties of the high priest to the duties of the people on this serious holiday.

“This shall be a statute forever for you: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict your souls, and do no work at all, whether a native of your own country or a stranger who dwells among you. For on that day the priest shall make atonement for you, to cleanse you, that you may be clean from all your sins before the LORD. It is a sabbath of solemn rest for you, and you shall afflict your souls. It is a statute forever. And the priest, who is anointed and consecrated to minister as priest in his father’s place, shall make atonement, and put on the linen clothes, the holy garments; then he shall make atonement for the Holy Sanctuary, and he shall make atonement for the tabernacle of meeting and for the altar, and he shall make atonement for the priests and for all the people of the assembly. This shall be an everlasting statute for you, to make atonement for the children of Israel, for all their sins, once a year.” And he did as the LORD commanded Moses.

(Leviticus 16:29-34)

The text makes it abundantly clear that this was to be on a set day of the year (the tenth day of the seventh month) and that it was to be on their perpetual schedule. But not only was this to be observed corporately by the congregation of Israel; it also had to be observed in a particular, regulated way.

First, on this day their hearts had to be right. We see this reflected in the term “afflict [or, humble] your souls.” This word speaks of humbling oneself in self-denial. The word is sometimes associated with fasting and prayer, as in Psalm 35:13: “But as for me, when they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth; I humbled myself with fasting; and my prayer would return to my own heart.”

The rabbis later came up with all sorts of extrabiblical requirements for sabbath days, but the point of this stipulation was that it was to be a serious holiday. It was to be a day on which the people gave serious consideration to their sin, their need to repent, and their great need for forgiveness (v. 30).

Allen Ross helpfully observes, “To receive atonement from God, the people had to show evidence of repentance and genuine spiritual concerns. . . . The instruction thus called for personal reflection, repentance, fasting, and prayer; to do this they denied themselves the luxuries and pleasures of life. The point is that they gave themselves over to focusing on the spiritual and not the physical.”17

Second, God mandated that this day be treated as a sabbath. Literally the text reads “sabbath of the sacred sabbath.” God was emphasising that this was a very holy day. Like the Fourth Commandment, the responsibility to rest from regular labours applied to all within the households—even foreigners.

The point of these verses is that the Day was to be a special day for God’s people. They were to give serious thought to their sin and to the brokenness of the world in which they lived. But, of course, they were to do so hopefully. They were to reflect on the means that God had provided to take away their sins. And, of course, as they did so in repentance and faith, they would also be motivated to live for God their Saviour. “The ‘sabbath of solemn rest’ would enable the Israelites to reflect upon their destiny as the chosen people, and the extent to which they were living as a spiritual community.”18

Let me simply observe that this should be the result of our serious weekly holiday, the Lord’s Day. As a community, we should be renewed in our love for God as we corporately reflect on our sin and repent in reliance on our Saviour.

After recounting the basic duty of the priest on that day (vv. 32-34a) we read the wonderful response: “And he did as the Lord commanded Moses” (v. 34b). Some translations suggest that Moses did as the Lord commanded, but the “he” may more properly refer to Aaron. Remember that this chapter was revealed shortly after the death of Aaron’s rebellious sons. Therefore this phrase serves as a wonderful testimony to Aaron’s humility and submission before the Lord. In the midst of grief, Aaron saw the grace of God and responded in faith.

A Symbolic Day

As indicated already, the Day of Atonement foreshadowed the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. That is why, according to Matthew 27:50-51, the veil separating the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place was torn in two when Jesus died. Hebrews 9:9 clearly refers to the Day of Atonement as symbolic of the person and work of Christ.

Then indeed, even the first covenant had ordinances of divine service and the earthly sanctuary. For a tabernacle was prepared: the first part, in which was the lampstand, the table, and the showbread, which is called the sanctuary; and behind the second veil, the part of the tabernacle which is called the Holiest of All, which had the golden censer and the ark of the covenant overlaid on all sides with gold, in which were the golden pot that had the manna, Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tablets of the covenant; and above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these things we cannot now speak in detail.

Now when these things had been thus prepared, the priests always went into the first part of the tabernacle, performing the services. But into the second part the high priest went alone once a year, not without blood, which he offered for himself and for the people’s sins committed in ignorance; the Holy Spirit indicating this, that the way into the Holiest of All was not yet made manifest while the first tabernacle was still standing. It was symbolic for the present time in which both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make him who performed the service perfect in regard to the conscience—concerned only with foods and drinks, various washings, and fleshly ordinances imposed until the time of reformation.

But Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? And for this reason He is the Mediator of the new covenant, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant, that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance.

(Hebrews 9:1-15)

Jesus, Our Mercy Seat

The shadows of Leviticus 16 became substance as the Lord Jesus died on the cross. It was at Calvary that Jesus Christ was accepted by God the Father, and treated by God the Father as the propitiation for our sins (Romans 3:21-26; 1 John 2:2; 4:10). The shed blood of Jesus Christ as our substitutionary sacrifice was the means by which the Father deflected His just wrath from us onto His Holy Son.

As God looked down on those chosen before the foundation of the world unto salvation He saw them as covenant breakers. He saw that they were therefore deserving of His wrath. But God had a plan; a plan that was also in place before the foundation of the world. His plan was to provide His Son to cover our sins. This is why Jesus Christ can rightfully be called the Mercy Seat or Mercy Covering of God.

You may recall that the Ark of the Covenant was constructed in such a way that the lid fit perfectly. This speaks of the fact that the righteousness of Christ completely covers our unrighteousness. And as the blood of the sin offering was a means of covering our sins so the blood of Christ covers us and protects us from the wrath of God.

Jesus, our Scapegoat

The scapegoat was also a shadow of the work of Christ. As we have seen, just as propitiation was the focus of the work of the high priest in the Most Holy Place, so the scapegoat focused attention of the aspect of expiation in salvation. That is, not only were sins and sinners covered by the blood, but they also were given the assurance that their sins had been carried away—to be remembered no more.

The Lord Jesus fulfilled this picture as well. In fact, the Bible specifically tells us that He suffered “outside the camp.” He was “cut off” (Isaiah 53:8; Daniel 9:26). He bore our griefs and carried away our sorrows because the Lord laid on Him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:4, 6).

I suspect that most Christians have less trouble believing in propitiation than they do expiation. Most of us are of the conviction that Jesus paid it all and that nothing but the blood of Jesus can wash away our sins. But we struggle often with the truth that Jesus actually bore our sins away.

But we must embrace this fact. He has removed our sins as far from us as the east is from the west. As the hymnist wrote, “Gone, gone, gone; all my sins are gone!” Let this chapter concerning the Day of Atonement convince you afresh that your sins have been cut off, never to condemn you again precisely because the Lord Jesus Christ was cut off in your place.

Jesus, Our High Priest

But finally, there is one more shadow in this chapter that points to Jesus; and it points us to Jesus Christ as our High Priest (see Hebrews 9:1-15).

Jesus Christ laid aside His robes of glory and took on the robes of humiliation when He became a man. But thankfully, His human robes were indeed white as snow, for He was sinless. He lived for 33 years proving that He was sinless and thus proving that He was the only way to God. In fact, as John instructs us, He was God in the flesh who tabernacled among us (John 1:14).

Upon His crucifixion—when He yielding up His spirit in death—the veil in the temple was torn in two, from the top to the bottom, signifying that the way to God was open to all who would embrace Him as their High Priest. Because of His High Priestly work, the Day of Atonement is now a daily event. Yes, because of the work of Christ, every day can be a serious holyday.

Believer, according to the book of Hebrews, Christ has entered beyond the veil to continually intercede for all who come by faith to God through Him. This means that, daily, you can reflect on the fact of sins forgiven, of sins carried away and of life reconsecrated to God. Every day can be approached with a joyful seriousness. Every day can be celebrated as the Day.

Now some of you have not yet entered that experience. But you may. The Scriptures tell us “For He says: ‘In an acceptable time I have heard you, and in the day of salvation I have helped you.’ Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2).

Yes, if you will lay your guilt on Christ, leaning your entire hope for salvation from your sins upon the risen Saviour, then today can be that day. May you experience God’s saving grace and may this be one of many serious holydays.

Show 18 footnotes

  1. John D. Currid, Study Commentary on Leviticus (Darlington: Evangelical Press, 2004), 212.
  2. Derek Tidball, The Message of Leviticus: Free to Be Holy (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2005), 192.
  3. Mark F. Rooker, Leviticus: The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000), 213.
  4. Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus: The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 228.
  5. Rousas John Rushdoony, Leviticus: Commentaries on the Pentateuch (Vallecito: Ross House Books, 2005), 169.
  6. Currid, Study Commentary on Leviticus, 212.
  7. Rooker, Leviticus, 213.
  8. Tidball, The Message of Leviticus, 188.
  9. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus, 230.
  10. Rooker, Leviticus, 218-19.
  11. Currid, Study Commentary on Leviticus, 221.
  12. Note that, in all the other sacrifices, only one hand was laid on the animal.
  13. Rushdoony, Leviticus, 158.
  14. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus, 237.
  15. Rushdoony, Leviticus, 167.
  16. Tidball, The Message of Leviticus, 198.
  17. Allen P. Ross, Holiness to the Lord: A Guide to the Exposition of the Book of Leviticus (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 314, 22.
  18. R. K. Harrison, Leviticus: Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1980), 175.