Several years ago, having lived in South Africa for a few years, my wife was stopped by a traffic officer for driving too fast in a school zone. She asked the officer, since, as a foreigner, she was unfamiliar with all the country’s traffic laws, if there was a book she could purchase that would help her to know such things as the standard speed limit in certain zones. Somewhat firmly, he replied, “No ma’am, but that speed limit sign right in front of you will tell you how fast you can drive.” Needless to say, she received the traffic fine even though she rightfully claimed “ignorance.”
We have all heard it said that “ignorance of the law is no excuse.” There is biblical basis for that principle of jurisprudence, and we see it before us in Leviticus 4:1—5:13.
These verses cover the fourth type of offering that the children of Israel could bring before the Lord at the tabernacle, namely, the sin offering. In distinction to the previous three (the burnt, the grain and the peace or fellowship offerings) this one was required by God for all of His people. And the reason was simple. You see, even though we may not always be immediately aware of our failure before God, nevertheless the Bible tells us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Therefore, we need forgiveness. As we will see, this was precisely the reason for this sacrifice.
With the revelation of the fourth offering, God for the first time specifically highlighted the problem of sin when it came to His people’s need to worship Him. The introduction here of the sin offering creates categories of thinking that must be embraced by those who desire to worship God. We will look at three needs of those who will worship God in spirit and in truth. And, of course, this is our great need.
The Realisation that We Need
For the children of Israel to appreciate the provision of the sin offering they would first need to come to an experiential realisation of their need. This was part of the purpose for this offering.
Now the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the children of Israel, saying: ‘If a person sins unintentionally against any of the commandments of the LORD in anything which ought not to be done, and does any of them . . .’”
The question was raised recently in my Grace Group as to how busy the tabernacle was when it came to the sacrifices. After all, it is estimated that there were some two million Israelites encamped around the tabernacle at this point. How long were the queues? How busy were the priests?
Sadly, I would suggest that they were probably not busy enough. Like today, I am sure that there were many who were of the opinion that the cost was too high or the wait was too long. “After all”, some may have argued, “life is practical and I don’t have time for all of this religious stuff. I will be fine; I am not as bad off as that guy waiting to sacrifice a bull for his sins!” Perhaps others felt that they could not be inconvenienced right now but that they would one day put matters right between them and God. But how wrong they were and how wrong such continue to be!
We need the painful realisation of our true condition before a holy God. Only then will we embrace the remedy offered to us in Christ Jesus the Lord. This is why this chapter opens with the announcement of new revelation.
The Revelation We Must Embrace
The introduction of the phrase “now the LORD spoke to Moses” (4:1) indicates that what is being revealed either came after some length of time after the revelation of chapters 1-3, or that this is the introduction of a new section in this first “worship manual” of Leviticus. Since a comparison of Exodus 40:2 and Numbers 1:1 indicates that Leviticus was completely finished within a month I hold to the view that here we are being introduced to a new category of offerings. And this new category is centred on the issue of sin.
Even though we have thus far had the revelation of three different sacrifices, this is the first time that the word “sin” is actually mentioned. Until now, the concept of sin has been assumed, but now it is actually articulated. From this point on, the word will appear at least 105 times in Leviticus. It is interesting to note that the concept of sin occurs in Leviticus more often than in any other book of the Bible.
We learn from this that if the people of God will worship God then they must come to grips with the sin that otherwise keeps them from Him. Therefore, this revelation from God was a vital necessity. And as it was for them, so it is for God’s people today.
Until we have a proper realisation of the seriousness of sin we will never have a proper appreciation of the Saviour. These sin offerings were intended to do that then, and the purpose of our study of them is the same now. The difference, of course, is that, for them, these sacrifices were a shadow of the Saviour to come, whereas we gaze upon the Saviour who has come. They had a sin offering, we worship the Sin Offering.
Upon a careful reading of the text you will note that these offerings are described in such a way that is markedly different from the previous three.
In the previously revealed offerings they were described with reference to what was offered. For instance, with reference to the peace offering, that which was sacrificed could be from the herd, or from the goats or from the sheep. But with the introduction of the sin offering, the description centres on who brings the offering.
Let me put it this way: In the previous offerings the emphasis was upon the sacrifice, whereas here the emphasis seems to be on the social status of the one who offers the sacrifice. The reason for this seems to be that the Lord is revealing to us that our sins have consequences, not merely personally, but also often corporately.
There are four social categories included in this passage: (1) the high priest (some suggest that all the priests should be included) in 4:1-12; (2) the entire congregation as represented by the elders in 4:13-21; (3) a civil leader (“ruler”) of the people in 4:22-26; and (4) any “common” or “ordinary” individual among the people (i.e. one who is not categorised by any of the above) in 4:27—5:13.
Let’s pay attention to this revelation as we proceed.
The Reality We Must Face
Verse 2 presents us with the reality we must face when it comes to our sin. This reality is twofold.
The Pollution of Sin
The word translated “sin” means “to err,” “to wander” or “to miss the mark.” It is a common word in the Scriptures, which highlights the reality that God has a standard which, though we may aim at, we nevertheless miss. The word pictures an archer aiming at a target with keen concentration and yet missing it. One illustrative use of the term is found in Judges 20:16, where some men from the tribe of Benjamin are said to have been able to hurl stones “at a hair’s breadth and not miss.”
The Bible reveals to us that no matter how hard we try to live up to God’s holy standard, we consistently miss the mark. David wrote that we are conceived in (or with) sin (Psalm 51:5). Sin is an inherent quality in humans. He wrote further, in Psalm 130:3, “If You, LORD, should mark iniquities, O LORD, who could stand?” Isaiah noted that “all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (64:6). Paul confessed that he found within himself “nothing good,” and therefore admitted, “The good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not do, that I practice” (Romans 7:18-19). And John tells believers, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves” (1 John 1:8). “In sinning the offender does indeed miss the real objective of existence, which is to live in obedience to God’s commands and be holy as He is holy.”1
The point to which the Bible, and our own experience, testifies is that we are (in the words of that great theologian, George Thorogood) “bad to the bone.’ In fact we are so bad that even when we set our hearts to do righteously we often find ourselves sinning. In other words, sin is a perverse pollution.
Some commentators and Bible teachers refer to this offering as the “purification offering” because of the inherent reason for this offering. This offering was for the purpose of cleansing the believing worshipper. The fundamental idea behind this offering is that of cleansing from various sorts of uncleanness in order to highlight the reality that we are sinners who are polluted by sin.
As we will soon see, the sin offering covered many “unintentional” sins, but a few are highlighted in the first 13 verses of chapter five. In each case we see the emphasis upon the worshipper’s need for “purity” or “cleanliness.” The pollution from sin must be removed before worship can take place.
The first example (5:1) is clearly a moral issue. When one refuses to bear testimony to what they have witnessed when called upon to do so, they are very much guilty of the moral failure of bearing false witness against their neighbour.
The third example (5:4) has to do with the sin of breaking one’s vows. This, as with the first example, is clearly a moral violation. And such a violation required cleansing.
The intervening verses (5:2-3), however, refer to seemingly non-moral issues that defile. As we will see later in the book, the theme of cleanness was very important to God. You will remember that the reason for this book was due to the presence of God in the tabernacle; and for the people to experience and to enjoy this presence required that they be holy, as God was holy.
God demonstrated this holiness by many laws of cleanness. This is why we later find this offering required offering after a woman’s menstrual cycle, after childbirth, and for many other bodily discharges, which God categorised as “unclean.”
Again, though being categorised as unclean with reference to these two verses, there was no moral violation; nevertheless, it was a lesson about the pollution caused by our sin nature.
The primary idea behind this offering was the sinfulness of sin and the pollution that it brings to our soul. As Eveson illustrates, with all of our concern today about ecological pollution we would do well to focus on the spiritual pollution that defiles humanity. Rather than panicking about global warming, we should be deathly earnest about God’s global warning of sin and the judgement to come. This offering served as a stark reminder of this reality.
The various applications of this offering highlight that sin has brought defilement, disease and death into the world. It is to highlight this reality that God prescribed this offering. He desired to drive home the reality of sin and its attendant defilement to those who would worship Him to drive them to the remedy.
The Pervasiveness of Sin
This offering deals with unintentional sins. The KJV reads, “If a soul shall sin through ignorance.” More modern translations speak of a person sinning “unintentionally.”
There is much discussion among the commentators as to how this term should be interpreted. Some argue that the concept of unintentional sins is a bad translation, and that in essence all sin is included here. I don’t believe that is the case. In fact Numbers 15:28-30 clearly indicates that presumptuous sins were not covered by this offering. In fact, it appears that for such sins of defiance there was no prescribed offering. This is probably what is behind David’s concern in Psalm 19:12-13, “Who can understand his errors? Cleanse me from secret faults. Keep back Your servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me. Then I shall be blameless, and I shall be innocent of great transgression.”
The term “unintentional” or “inadvertent” can mean “ignorantly” or even “accidently.” But how do we explain “accidental” or “ignorant” sins? After all, is not all sin deliberate? I would suggest that this is not necessarily the case, and we know this both from Scripture and by our own experience.
“Unintentional” sins those that are not committed with a defiant and deliberate challenge to God, but rather as the result of our depraved and weakened nature, which is prone to wander. It was fo these kinds of sins that the sin offering was prescribed. Eveson says it well: “The sins covered by this law are not sins associated with apostasy, where there are deliberate, defiant acts of rebellion, but those that are due to weakness arising from sinful human nature.”2 Currid notes, “They are committed inadvertently or unwittingly. . . . An individual’s ignorance or lack of awareness regarding God’s law is a mitigating circumstance.”3 And Rushdoony writes that these are “sins of weakness and human frailty. These are not capital offenses. They are, however, serious because they are violations of God’s law.”4
Bonar says of these sins: “So deceitful is sin, we may be committing that abominable thing which cast angels into an immediate and eternal hell, and yet at the moment be totally unaware! Want of knowledge of the truth, and too little tenderness of conscience, hide it from us.”5
By considering the context of this sin offering we can draw some conclusions about unintentional and intentional sins.
It is important to remember that this revelation of the various acceptable offerings was coming to a people in covenant relationship with God. The assumption is that the only kinds of sins that such individuals would commit would be those that were unintentional. It would be so out of character to commit an intentional offence against the Lord. This is precisely how the New Testament addresses the disciple of Christ Jesus the Lord.
Consider, for example, the testimony of the apostle John in this regard. He wrote, “My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin” (1 John 2:1). Again, “We know that whoever is born of God does not sin” (1 John 5:18). Or listen to these words in 1 John 3:4-6: “Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness. And you know that He was manifested to take away our sins, and in Him there is no sin. Whoever abides in Him does not sin. Whoever sins has neither seen Him nor known Him.” John suggests in these and other texts that believers do not sin.
And yet, in the first chapter of the same epistle, the apostle writes, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8-9).
How do we reconcile these seeming contradictory testimonies? I believe that we do so by the Scriptural categories of unintentional and presumptuous (or high-handed) sins. These latter terms carry the idea of haughtiness, arrogance, pride and self-exaltation. And as the Bible teaches, “God resist the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5).
We can therefore conclude that sinlessness does not characterise the believer, but humility in failure does. Believers still miss the mark, and they are painfully aware of this. While they do sin, they nevertheless are broken by it and thus bring their sacrifice in repentance before the Lord. In fact such a humble display points to their sin being unintentional.
On the other hand, those who arrogantly defy the living God have no sacrifice to offer, for they have no desire to be right with God. This is probably what David meant in Psalm 19:13 when he expressed his desire to never commit the “great transgression.” There is no greater transgression than to defy belief in Almighty God. But this is precisely what arrogant apostates do. And this is what John referred to when he spoke of “a sin leading to death” (1 John 5:16). In other words, one who rejects God is under spiritual death and is heading towards everlasting spiritual death. At the same time, John writes of “a sin which does not lead death.” This indicates that the New Testament also recognises this categorical distinction.
I have laboured this point because it is important for us to see that the only ones who truly are concerned with the sin offering are those who are serious about sin. They are so serious about it that, when confronted with their guilt, they respond in repentance and faith. This has always marked the true believer in the Lord Jesus Christ.
I trust that we can see at this point that we desperately need an accurate assessment of who we are before a holy God if we will be reconciled to Him. It is for this reason that we are in desperate need—on a daily basis—of God’s revelation of our true condition. We need to heed the Lord’s words to Moses if we will hear His voice inviting us to fellowship. And as we do so, we will discover sin of which we were previously unaware. This is why God provided the sin offering. Once a person became aware of his guilt, he was pointed to the remedy.
I recently read the autobiographical account of Lee Cheng, who by the age of 18 had had four abortions. In China, of course, it was illegal for her to have multiple children, and so whenever she fell pregnant she simply aborted the baby. She did so ignorantly, not understanding that it was wrong to do so. But when God graciously opened her eyes many years later, and granted her forgiveness, she became proactive in her opposition of abortion.
Practically, we need the realisation of how pervasive our sin problem is. We are too “healthy” for our soul’s good. Beware the self-esteem movement. Beware of a superficial “health” with reference to your true condition.
The Remedy We Are Given
Verses 3-35 provide the remedy for the sin problem of the people. Though there is a deep-seated problem that we face, we are not abandoned by God. On the contrary, He has prescribed a means by which sinners can be reconciled to Him.
The remedy in our text, of course, was the sin offering. And in this offering we see some principles that point us to the ultimate remedy, the Sin Offering: the Lord Jesus Christ. There are timeless principles here for us to acknowledge. While discarding the wrapping of the ritual, we at the same time want to keep the valuable, because perpetual, principles of how, and in whom, one is reconciled to God.
The Ritual of the Sin Offering
In these verses we find four different categories of sinners who are in need of cleansing and forgiveness. The particular ritual for each differed in various ways, but the principle issue remained the same: For cleansing to occur, an unblemished substitute needed to be sacrificed on the sinner’s behalf.
A Sinning Priest
The first category of sinner spoken of here is the sinning priest.
If the anointed priest sins, bringing guilt on the people, then let him offer to the LORD for his sin which he has sinned a young bull without blemish as a sin offering. He shall bring the bull to the door of the tabernacle of meeting before the LORD, lay his hand on the bull’s head, and kill the bull before the LORD. Then the anointed priest shall take some of the bull’s blood and bring it to the tabernacle of meeting. The priest shall dip his finger in the blood and sprinkle some of the blood seven times before the LORD, in front of the veil of the sanctuary. And the priest shall put some of the blood on the horns of the altar of sweet incense before the LORD, which is in the tabernacle of meeting; and he shall pour the remaining blood of the bull at the base of the altar of the burnt offering, which is at the door of the tabernacle of meeting. He shall take from it all the fat of the bull as the sin offering. The fat that covers the entrails and all the fat which is on the entrails, the two kidneys and the fat that is on them by the flanks, and the fatty lobe attached to the liver above the kidneys, he shall remove, as it was taken from the bull of the sacrifice of the peace offering; and the priest shall burn them on the altar of the burnt offering. But the bull’s hide and all its flesh, with its head and legs, its entrails and offal—the whole bull he shall carry outside the camp to a clean place, where the ashes are poured out, and burn it on wood with fire; where the ashes are poured out it shall be burned.
The anointed priest may have been either the high priest or any anointed priest (see 6:20-22). Whatever the case, such an individual was God’s appointed mediator for the children of Israel and so, if he was defiled, then the plot was completely lost!
This highlights that the best of men are only men at best, and that the old covenant priesthood could never take away sins, for they had to offer sacrifices for themselves (Hebrews 7:27-28a). But it also highlights the fearful responsibility that they bore: The spiritual welfare of the people quite literally rested on their shoulders. They could not bear sin and intercede for sinners at the same time.
Upon becoming aware of some violation of God’s commandments the priest was required to bring an unblemished young bull to the altar of burnt offering, place his hands on its head and slay it there. The sins of the prominent were more defiling and therefore the sacrifice was more costly.
He then was to take some of its blood, enter the Holy Place in the tabernacle and splatter the veil separating the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place seven times with this blood. God’s representative had been defiled and, by extension, so had God’s place.
This was symbolic of cleansing God’s dwelling place thus opening the way for fellowship. The priest then would take some blood and put it on each of the four horns of the altar of incense, the altar which stood before the now blood splattered veil. Since these horns pointed upward on the corners of the altar, and since this altar symbolised prayer (Psalm 141:2; Revelation 8:3-4), it would seem that this was symbolic of the priestly intercession now being accepted by God.
With the remainder of the blood the priest would return to the burnt altar and pour it out at its base. This is different from the previous offerings, where the blood was thrown against the altar. Perhaps this symbolised offering back to God that which was uniquely His (see 3:17; 7:22-27; 17:11).
The priest then would take the fat, the kidneys and the soot, and offer it to God (as with the peace offering, see 4:10). The remainder of the bull, along with its skin, was then to be taken outside the camp to the clean place where the ashes were poured out, and there to be burned (4:11-12). It should be noted that, in this offering, the priests received no portion of the sacrifice. This is to highlight that the priest was not to receive any benefit from his sin. Sin is detestable and is never advantageous to us.
A Sinning People
The second prescription of sin offering was for the people corporately, under the leadership of the elders.
Now if the whole congregation of Israel sins unintentionally, and the thing is hidden from the eyes of the assembly, and they have done something against any of the commandments of the LORD in anything which should not be done, and are guilty; when the sin which they have committed becomes known, then the assembly shall offer a young bull for the sin, and bring it before the tabernacle of meeting. And the elders of the congregation shall lay their hands on the head of the bull before the LORD. Then the bull shall be killed before the LORD. The anointed priest shall bring some of the bull’s blood to the tabernacle of meeting. Then the priest shall dip his finger in the blood and sprinkle it seven times before the LORD, in front of the veil. And he shall put some of the blood on the horns of the altar which is before the LORD, which is in the tabernacle of meeting; and he shall pour the remaining blood at the base of the altar of burnt offering, which is at the door of the tabernacle of meeting. He shall take all the fat from it and burn it on the altar. And he shall do with the bull as he did with the bull as a sin offering; thus he shall do with it. So the priest shall make atonement for them, and it shall be forgiven them. Then he shall carry the bull outside the camp, and burn it as he burned the first bull. It is a sin offering for the assembly.
This particular sin offering, it would seem, referred to the nation as a whole being under God’s displeasure due to some unintentional sin on the part of the leadership. In fact, the term “congregation” may refer to a “parliamentary” group of leaders who had sinned, and as a result the assembly (the larger nation whom they represented) had suffered the consequences. Perhaps the leadership had misapplied God’s Word, or had ignored it completely. In such a case, God held the entire assembly responsible. It is for this reason that the elders were involved in this offering.
Again, as with the above case, we see that sin had consequences far beyond the guilty individual. As Rushdoony comments, “Today, as in pagan antiquity, it is commonly assumed that position and power give immunity from law and consequences. God’s law declares that the greater the responsibility, the greater the culpability.”6
That is the principle Jesus was driving home when He said, “For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more” (Luke 12:48). It is why James wrote, “My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgement” (James 3:1).
There are some similarities with the sin offering for the guilty priest. A young, unblemished bull was sacrificed in the same way, and the blood was applied likewise. The only significant difference is that the elders were the ones to lay their hands on the head of the bull, and upon completion of the ritual the priest pronounced forgiveness. Currid writes of the term used for forgiveness: “This Hebrew verb always and only has God as the subject. Its use here indicates that he accepts the sacrifice, and his wrath and anger are stayed from coming on the people.”7
It is interesting that this pronouncement of forgiveness is absent from the case of the priest offering the sin offering. Probably the reason for this is that the priest could not pronounce his own forgiveness. This, in some ways, would be a heavy burden to carry. Woe to the sinning priest!
It should be observed that, following the pronouncement of forgiveness, the bull, its skin and its flesh was also taken outside the camp and burnt completely. Why would this ritual take place after the experience of forgiveness? Perhaps to help the people to grow in a thorough disgust of sin. “We are not to forget sin, because it has been atoned for; and we are not to think lightly of sin, because it is washed away.”8 We will explore this later.
A Sinning Ruler
The third instance of sin offering is an interesting one. Here, a civil ruler, perhaps a tribal leader, is guilty of an unintentional sin and is required to make a sin offering.
When a ruler has sinned, and done something unintentionally against any of the commandments of the LORD his God in anything which should not be done, and is guilty, or if his sin which he has committed comes to his knowledge, he shall bring as his offering a kid of the goats, a male without blemish. And he shall lay his hand on the head of the goat, and kill it at the place where they kill the burnt offering before the LORD. It is a sin offering. The priest shall take some of the blood of the sin offering with his finger, put it on the horns of the altar of burnt offering, and pour its blood at the base of the altar of burnt offering. And he shall burn all its fat on the altar, like the fat of the sacrifice of the peace offering. So the priest shall make atonement for him concerning his sin, and it shall be forgiven him.
Matthew Henry notes of this particular offering for the sinning ruler: “Those who have power to call others to account, are themselves accountable to the Ruler of rulers; high as they are, there is a higher than they.”9
In this instance, the ruler was required to bring an unblemished, male kid of the goats to offer as a sacrifice. He was laid his hands on its head and cut its throat at the bronze altar. With his finger the priest took some of the blood and sprinkled the horns of the altar. He then poured out the blood at its base, and burned the kidneys and fat as with the peace offering. Other passages indicate that the remainder of the sacrifice went to the priests for their consumption. Perhaps this was to symbolise the complete removal of the sin from the worshipper as borne by the priest.
It is helpful to note that “the sins of the secular leader are regarded as less heinous than the sins of priests or the congregational representatives.”10 Therefore we should be even more disturbed by moral failures of spiritual leaders than of those by our political leaders!
A Sinning Individual
The fourth and final category of sinner in this passage is the sinning individual. In fact, chapter 5 continues dealing with the sin of the individual.
If anyone of the common people sins unintentionally by doing something against any of the commandments of the LORD in anything which ought not to be done, and is guilty, or if his sin which he has committed comes to his knowledge, then he shall bring as his offering a kid of the goats, a female without blemish, for his sin which he has committed. And he shall lay his hand on the head of the sin offering, and kill the sin offering at the place of the burnt offering. Then the priest shall take some of its blood with his finger, put it on the horns of the altar of burnt offering, and pour all the remaining blood at the base of the altar. He shall remove all its fat, as fat is removed from the sacrifice of the peace offering; and the priest shall burn it on the altar for a sweet aroma to the LORD. So the priest shall make atonement for him, and it shall be forgiven him.
If he brings a lamb as his sin offering, he shall bring a female without blemish. Then he shall lay his hand on the head of the sin offering, and kill it as a sin offering at the place where they kill the burnt offering. The priest shall take some of the blood of the sin offering with his finger, put it on the horns of the altar of burnt offering, and pour all the remaining blood at the base of the altar. He shall remove all its fat, as the fat of the lamb is removed from the sacrifice of the peace offering. Then the priest shall burn it on the altar, according to the offerings made by fire to the LORD. So the priest shall make atonement for his sin that he has committed, and it shall be forgiven him.
This prescription addresses the matter of anyone of the laity, who felt the burden of revealed sin in his life. Schulz is helpful when he observes, “No religious or civil leader was so prominent that his sin was condoned, nor any man so insignificant that his sin was ignored.”11 Such an individual offered a sin offering of either an unblemished female kid of or an unblemished female lamb. Everything else about this sacrifice was identical for the case of the sinning civil leader.
It must also be observed the scope of God’s offered grace in this case. According to other passages (5:7, etc.) the sinning individual could bring two turtledoves or two pigeons for such a sacrifice. In fact, if they could not afford even this then they were permitted to bring a grain offering of fine flour (5:11)—a portion that would make about one loaf of bread. God’s mercy is wide. The purpose of the sacrifices was not deprivation but rather reconciliation. As Tidball has noted, “God’s intention was that forgiveness should be readily available for all, and not beyond the reach of even the poorest member of the community.”12 God so desires to save sinners more than sinners even desire to be saved! What fools we can be!
The Responsibility that is Ours
As indicated, this offering on three separate occasions, makes the point that “the priest shall make atonement for him concerning his sin, and it shall be forgiven him” (vv. 26, 31, 35). That is, this offering was a remedy for that which ails you, namely, sin.
But a couple of things need to be observed.
First, the sinner must take responsibility for his unintentional sins. The category of “unintentional” sins does not remove our responsibility. In fact, the very fact of the prescribed sin offering—regardless of one’s station in life—supposes that God holds us accountable for them.
Second, as noted, although we are all responsible for our sins—whether intentional or unintentional—some carry a greater responsibility than others (see Luke 12:48; James 3:1).
Third, those who receive the revelation are responsible to embrace the remedy. This is clearly seen in the requirement to lay one’s hands on the sacrifice, thereby confessing the now-discovered sin and appropriating God’s forgiveness through the appointed substitutionary sacrifice.
The Remission that we Enjoy
The truth of sins remitted (removed) is portrayed in the removal of the bull’s remains from the camp and the burning thereof (vv. 11-12, 21). This is an interesting aspect of the sin offering. And it occurs with specific reference to the sinning priests and the sinning congregation.
As noted above, this action teaches us that sin is never to be interpreted as profitable. There is a cost to sin and it never improves our lot in life. So avoid it at all costs!
But further, this also teaches us that when God forgives us that He removes our sin completely from us. He removes it from His sight and it is to be removed from ours as well. But we must never forget the cost.
By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God, from that time waiting till His enemies are made His footstool. For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified.
The Redeemer that We Have
The sin offering points us to the Sin Offering, the Lord Jesus Christ. He alone is the remedy for all sin—yes, even for yours.
It is instructive to note that Leviticus makes provision for a sin offering on the annual Day of Atonement, on which the High Priest, stripped to his linen undergarment, entered the Most Holy Place with the blood of the sacrificial offering to make atonement for any and all sin. It atoned for any sin that had not yet been atoned for by the other sacrifices. On the Day of Atonement all sins could be atoned for—but only for those who believed God as demonstrated by offering His prescribed sacrifice. However, if anyone intentionally disregarded this sacrifice, there was no hope for them.
Of course, that Day pointed like no other festival day to the Lord Jesus Christ who Himself entered beyond the veil to atone for our sins (Hebrews 10:19-23).
Let me address an eternally important issue with respect to ourselves. We have all missed the mark. We have all erred. And we are all without excuse. Is there hope for us? Yes, because this sin offering points us to the Sin Offering of the Lord Jesus Christ. He became sin for us, we are told in 2 Corinthians 5:21. Literally you could say that He became the Sin Offering for us. And He could do so because the verse also tells us that He was without sin. Let me make a connection with that New Testament revelation and this one in Leviticus 4.
Perhaps you noted that the sin offerings on behalf of the congregation, the ruler and for the individual all end with the promise of atonement and forgiveness (vv. 26, 31, 35), but that this is not the case for the sin offering for the guilty priest. These words are missing from the portion that deals with them. Why is this so, and what is its significance?
Superficially, we should note that no one can pronounce his own forgiveness. In the three other cases the text tells us that the priest would make atonement for the offerer. It perhaps would appear strange, even arrogant, for the priest to make atonement for himself and to pronounce his own forgiveness. But this points us to a truth that lies below the surface: The priest, by virtue of being a sinner, was limited in what he could accomplish. After all, if the priest was guilty, could he really mediate for others?
We know from other passages that even though God established the priests as effective temporary mediators, they all pointed to one who would one day come who would not need to make an offering for His own sins (see Hebrews 7:22-27; 9:11-15).
What then can we say about the remedy that God offered to His people so long ago?
First, we can say that it was an act of gracious forbearance to prepare the way for the Saviour, the Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Again, it can never be said enough that these sacrifices had no inherent value to atone for sin. They were pictures to point the children of Israel to the sinfulness of their sin and to the sufficient salvation that was promised through the promised Seed (Genesis 3:15).
As an Israelite would contemplate his slaying of an animal for the purpose of atonement and forgiveness, he would be in a position to contemplate the reality that sin is so serious that death is its penalty and that an unblemished substitute alone will suffice.
As we look back at the Sin Offering we too need to deeply contemplate the sinfulness of our sin—its exceeding sinfulness. And as we do so, we too must realise that only the sinless Son of God suffices for our atonement and therefore for our forgiveness. But this is precisely the point where sinful man is offended. He does not want to admit that his problem is so deep. He does not want to face the fact that he is sinful through and through, and that his righteousness is as filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). Modern man is too sophisticated to admit the need to be washed in the blood of the Lamb. Yet apart from this he will remain in his sins; and worse, he will die in them (John 8:24).
The “experts” constantly tell us how “great” we are, and that we must embrace positive self-esteem, while the Scriptures tell us everywhere that we are bad to our core. The entire sacrificial system screams this message. God used these sacrifices to instruct the children of Israel of their miserable condition and of their need for His gracious atonement. But only those who confessed their need would appropriate the sacrifice. And the same is true today.
Sinners—every one of us—must see the desperate condition that we are in. We must see that we sin, that we miss the mark even when we aim so conscientiously and so intently to do right. We are so bad that we sin unintentionally. And though we may claim “ignorance of the law,” God says that we are “without excuse” (Romans 1:20). The signs are posted all along the road of life.
The cross declares the same message, only with a lot more decibels if one will hear.
We began our study of this chapter under the heading “the revelation of the sin offering.” God expected the nation to hear His voice, to hear His remedy for their radically depraved condition. If they would hear and heed then they would experience the help He offered them. And things have not changed—except for one major thing. You see, this revelation came to one particular nation, whereas the revelation of the love of God in Christ Jesus as revealed at Calvary comes to all peoples on earth. God used a microphone when He declared His offer of forgiveness through the sin offering, but at Calvary He used a megaphone to declare forgiveness through the Sin Offering.
That is why Paul could say in 2 Corinthians 5 that, at the cross, God principally reconciled the world to Himself, and that He has been practically doing so ever since through the proclamation of the gospel. Today, that is precisely what the Lord is doing. God is declaring to you through this study that “He made [Christ] who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Yes, God is even now using the megaphone of gospel proclamation to let you know that Jesus Christ atoned for the sins of all whom He will forgive. And He will forgive all who come unto God by Him.
Let me close by addressing what may be a huge concern to some of you. Perhaps you have been rejecting the sin offering time and again over the years. And you have been intentionally doing so. Is there hope for you?
Well, if today you have come to realise what a blind and sinful fool you have been then Christ will save you if you turn to Him. In fact, all unbelief is ultimately unintentional sin. Or at the most it is temporary intentional sin, for one day everyone will confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God (Philippians 2:9-11).
When God opens your eyes to the truth of the gospel, you realise how ignorant you have been. You realise that though you were intentional about rejecting Christ you were doing so as a blind fool. The apostle Paul—who at one time intentionally rejected Christ—said that when the light of the gospel came to his soul, he realized that he had been doing so “ignorantly in unbelief” (1 Timothy 1:13-14).
If you will be saved then you must confess how ignorant you have been, and by God’s grace you will move from unintentional unbelief to very intentional belief.
The question is, will you continue to commit the sin that leads to death or will you repent and call upon the name of the Lord, the Sin Offering, the Lord Jesus Christ. Will you lay hold of Him, seeing your sins transferred to Him on your behalf? If you will, then the Sin Offering will pronounce that your sins are forgiven. “Christ as the sin offering imputes His righteousness to the worshipper who leans on Him.”13
Oh, hear His voice today! Embrace His remedy today by repenting of your sin, confessing it and trust the Redeemer, the Lord Jesus Christ.
- R. K. Harrison, Leviticus: Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1980), 60. ↩
- Philip H. Eveson, The Beauty of Holiness: The Book of Leviticus Simply Explained (Darlington: Evangelical Press, 2007), 58. ↩
- John D. Currid, Study Commentary on Leviticus (Darlington: Evangelical Press, 2004), 53. ↩
- Rousas John Rushdoony, Commentaries on the Pentateuch, 5 vols. (Vallecito: Ross House Books, 2005), 3:25. ↩
- Andrew Bonar, Leviticus: The Geneva Series of Commentaries (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1989), 65. ↩
- Rushdoony, Commentaries on the Pentateuch, 3:26. ↩
- Currid, Study Commentary on Leviticus, 59. ↩
- Bonar, Leviticus, 72. ↩
- Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, 3 vols. (Nashville: Royal Publishers, 1979), 1:236. ↩
- Currid, Study Commentary on Leviticus, 60. ↩
- Mark F. Rooker, Leviticus: The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000), 108. ↩
- Derek Tidball, The Message of Leviticus: Free to Be Holy (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2005), 76. ↩
- Robert I. Vasholz, Leviticus: A Mentor Commentary (Ross-shire: Mentor, 2007), 66. ↩