Leviticus 11-15 taught the people the necessity to be holy because God is holy. Many commands are given to teach the people what to do when they become defiled. We saw as we studied these chapters that becoming defiled did not merely result from sinning. We learned that simply living life made one unholy and defiled. If a woman bore a child, she would be unclean. This had nothing to do with sin. If a person had a skin rash, that person became unclean. Again, this had nothing to do with sin but God was teaching that just being human was defiling and unclean. God is communicating to his people his supreme holiness. Because of our humanity we cannot be in the presence of God. Yet God is being gracious to teach the people what they need to do regarding their defilements so that they can remain in fellowship with God.
However, Leviticus 16 returns us to the scene that occurred in chapter 10. These are the words that were spoken to Moses after the death of Aaron’s two sons. Recall in Leviticus 10 that Nadab and Abihu are the sons of Aaron who approach God for worship using fire that was not authorized by God. God consumed them in fire and they did because God is holy and must be regarded as holy in all activities. God will defend and uphold his holiness when we do not regard and respect his holiness. The first two verses of Leviticus 16 want to communicate the holiness of God in the strongest way. Moses is to tell Aaron that he cannot just coming into the Holy Place behind the veil at any time. Not even Aaron can go in there. If he does, he is going to die. Now God tells Aaron this out of grace so that Aaron will not die. God does not surprise him but graciously explains the situation. Aaron cannot go in there at any time. Why not? Verse 2 explains further that he cannot come in at any time because “God will appear in the cloud over the mercy seat.” The presence of God is there and you cannot just walk in to where the presence of God is. God is too holy and we are too defiled and human to enter into that room. Not even the high priest designated by God could walk into the room where the presence of God was. Entering the presence of God cannot be taken lightly. Death will occur if you go in there.
Now God says something interesting about where he is. God is appearing in a cloud over the mercy seat. We can easily picture the wrong thing when we read about the mercy seat. There is not a seat or throne in that Holy Place of the tabernacle. This is probably better rendered as the “atonement cover” (NIV) or “atonement lid” because it is referring to the lid of the Ark of the Covenant that was in the Most Holy Place of the tabernacle. Notice that God says that this is the place of atonement. The Hebrew word here is a reference to atonement and the lid on the ark. So where did the mercy seat image come from? Turn to Psalm 99:1.
The Lord reigns; let the peoples tremble! He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake! (Psalm 99:1 ESV)
Notice that the psalmist pictures that lid of the ark of the covenant as the place where God sits and is enthroned. So the mercy seat idea is not a false idea so long as we understand it was not an actual seat. The ark of the covenant has a lid over it and that is the place of atonement because that is where God’s presence is. The holiness of God is extremely important. Listen to how verse 3 begins: “But in this way Aaron shall come into the Holy Place.”
Preparation To Enter the Most Holy Place (16:3-5)
When Aaron was going to enter the Most Holy Place, he brought a bull for the sin offering, a ram for the burnt offering, clothed only in linens. Then two male goats were needed for the sin offering and a ram for the burnt offering on behalf of the people. The priest would be clothed like a servant and we see God requiring complete purity before coming into God’s presence.
The Description of Atonement (16:6-28)
Verses 6-10 describe the basic picture of what is happening on the day of atonement, while verses 11-18 give more details and instructions. The bull was offered as a sin offering on behalf of the high priest and his household. Atonement was needed for the priest before he was able to make atonement for the people. Once that was completed, then atonement could be made with the other two goats and ram for the people. In verse 8 we read that Aaron was to cast lots over the two goats. One goat would be presented to the Lord as the offering and the other would be presented as Azazel. Many translations read “Azazel” which is a transliteration of the Hebrew. The reason for this is because the meaning of this word is uncertain. Some translations read “scapegoat.” This comes from breaking down the Hebrew word into two parts which means “the goat that departs.” This is likely the best understanding of the function for this goat.
Leviticus explains the procedure. The high priest on the seventh month and tenth day would enter into the tabernacle, burning incense so that the smoke would fill the Most Holy Place and cover the ark of the covenant. Then the high priest would take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle blood in front of the ark. Then he will take some of the blood of the goat of the sin offering and sprinkle it over the atonement lid and in front of the ark. This will make atonement for the Most Holy Place because the sins of the people are defiling to the Lord. Then blood of the goat was to be sprinkled on the altar for atonement for the people. Then the high priest laid his hands on the head of the live goat and confessed over it all the sins of the people. Notice the beautiful imagery. With the sins confessed on the head of the goat, the goat was sent away into the wilderness, carrying the sins of the people. Then burnt offerings were made for atonement. Once the offerings were finished, the remains were carried outside the camp. With the time left I want us to consider two amazing things about atonement.
The Need For Humility (16:29-30)
This day was not supposed to be some mere ritual as we often picture of the Old Testament system. Please notice that the people are commanded to “humble themselves” or “deny themselves,” depending on the translation. The people were not to do any work but humble themselves when they consider the atonement that has been made for their sins. The power of this humbling is seen in verse 30. They were to humble themselves and deny themselves “for on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you. You shall be clean before the Lord from all your sins.” We humble ourselves because atonement was made for you. God must cleanse you. God must make atonement for you. We cannot atone for sins. We humble ourselves because we learn that the only way of access into the presence of the Lord is by the application of the atoning blood on the atonement lid, and the removal of the sins of the humble is by placing those sins on the scapegoat (“the goat that goes away”).
Jesus, the Sacrifice of Atonement
The New Testament spends a great amount of time showing that the day of atonement and all that was tied to it was a picture looking forward to the work of Jesus.
For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. (Romans 3:22–25 NRSV)
Notice that Jesus is the sacrifice of atonement (“propitiation” in some translations). By the grace of God, once a year, at the end of the year, all the sins and defilements of the people were taken care and they could start fresh. God made a way to cleanse and sanctify people from every sin and defilement so they could remain in close relationship with him. Jesus is the sacrifice of atonement for the world to make this possible. The writer of Hebrews explores this idea deeper in his letter.
6 These preparations having thus been made, the priests go regularly into the first section, performing their ritual duties, 7 but into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people. 8 By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing 9 (which is symbolic for the present age). According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, 10 but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation. (Hebrews 9:6–10 ESV)
Notice that the writer is specifically speaking about the day of atonement. He says that only the high priest may enter the second section of the tabernacle (the Holy Place in Leviticus 16) once a year, with blood for his sins and the sins of the people. But notice verse 8. Since only the high priest could enter once a year, the Holy Spirit through the scriptures was indicating a lack of access into the holy places (9:8) and was indicating that their daily offerings could not perfect the conscience of the worshiper (9:9). Now continue reading Hebrews 9.
11 But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) 12 he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. 13 For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. (Hebrews 9:11–14 ESV)
The writer says that Jesus came as the high priest of the good things to come. However, he did not enter the physical tabernacle. Rather, he entered the heavenly tabernacle. But he did not enter with the blood of animals. He entered with his own blood. Do you see the power of what Jesus did? He is the animal offered for our sins. His blood was sprinkled on the place of atonement, that heavenly atonement lid, “securing an eternal redemption.” His blood can purify our conscience from dead works, unlike the blood of animals. Now let’s finish the paragraph in Hebrews:
24 For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. 25 Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, 26 for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. 27 And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, 28 so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him. (Hebrews 9:24–28 ESV)
Therefore, when Christ came and offered himself on the cross, this was the day of atonement for all time, ending the need for sacrifices. Jesus once for all put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. Just one more picture and this lesson will be yours. We saw on the day of atonement that there was a goat that was sent away after the sins of the people were confessed over its head. The New Testament also relates this image to us.
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. (1 Peter 2:24 ESV)
But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:5–6 ESV)
Listen to the words of John the Baptizer: The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! (John 1:29 ESV)
Jesus’ sacrifice makes atonement for us for our sins and also takes away our sins, as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12). Because atonement has been made for us through the offering of Jesus, we must humble ourselves. God has cleansed us of our sins through the great sacrifice of Jesus. All of our sins have been dealt with and removed at the cross. Praise God who loves us and makes atonement for us by offering his Son as the sacrifice of atonement on our behalf.