The Gospel in Leviticus, Part 3: The Day of Atonement

On the 10th day of the 7th month each year, the people of Israel would gather for a holy day known as the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). This day was set aside so that all of the people could come together at the tabernacle and receive a temporary covering for their sins, as the high priest would perform the ceremony as instructed by the LORD.

PRIEST

The high priest took his duties very seriously on the day of atonement. On this day – and ONLY on this day each year – he would enter the holy place, the holy of holies, the room that contained the ark of the covenant. Above the ark of the covenant rested the solid gold bar known as the mercy seat. And in the holy place the LORD resided, His presence being demonstrated by smoke. If the priest entered the holy place in the wrong manner, he was in danger of death. God meant serious business. And the high priest knew it.

The high priest would wear the garments of a common, ordinary priest on that day, not the fancy garments that he normally was instructed to wear in the tabernacle. These garments demonstrated his humility. He bathed twice during the ceremony, as instructed by the LORD. He brought with him the animals that the LORD instructed him to bring to sacrifice on behalf of himself and all of the people of Israel.

Leviticus 16:2-5 (HCSB)
2 The Lord said to Moses: “Tell your brother Aaron that he may not come whenever he wants into the holy place behind the veil in front of the mercy seat on the ark or else he will die, because I appear in the cloud above the mercy seat. 3 “Aaron is to enter the ⌊most⌋ holy place in this way: with a young bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. 4 He is to wear a holy linen tunic, and linen undergarments are to be on his body. He must tie a linen sash ⌊around him⌋ and wrap his head with a linen turban. These are holy garments; he must bathe his body with water before he wears them. 5 He is to take from the Israelite community two male goats for a sin offering and one ram for a burnt offering.

Jesus is the great high priest. (See the previous post for more on this.) When Jesus took on flesh, He was identifying with humanity. He displayed perfect humility by coming to earth as a man.

Philippians 2:5-8 (HCSB)
5 Make your own attitude that of Christ Jesus, 6 who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be used for His own advantage. 7 Instead He emptied Himself by assuming the form of a slave, taking on the likeness of men. And when He had come as a man in His external form, 8 He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death— even to death on a cross.

Just like the high priest was all alone on the day of atonement, performing the sacrifices on behalf of the people, Jesus was all alone as He suffered and died for our sins. Jesus, our eternal high priest, was also the sacrifice. He sacrificed Himself!

The people of Israel were counting on the high priest to faithfully follow the LORD’s plan for the day of atonement. As I imagine the thought process of the high priest, here is what he could have been thinking: “If I don’t do this right, I’m a dead man. And the sins of the people won’t be atoned for.” 

As Jesus was nearing the cross, as He knelt to pray intensely in the garden, perhaps this was His thought process: “If I do this right, I’m a dead man. And the sins of the people WILL be atoned for.” 

Praise the LORD that our eternal high priest went all the way to the cross. He paid the penalty for our sin.

PURIFICATION

Stage 1 – Sacrifice

The first stage of the purification for the sins of the people was that there must be animal sacrifice. The priest first sacrificed a bull as a sin offering on behalf of himself and his family. Then he sacrificed a goat on behalf of the sins of the nation. This sacrifice provided a temporary covering – an atonement – for the sins of the people for the previous year. Next year, the high priest would have to once again stand in the holy place to sprinkle the blood of the atoning sacrifice. The sacrifice on the day of atonement provided a temporary purification to the people for their sins.

Leviticus 16:15-16 (HCSB)
15 “When he slaughters the male goat for the people’s sin offering and brings its blood inside the veil, he must do the same with its blood as he did with the bull’s blood: he is to sprinkle it against the mercy seat and in front of it. 16 He will purify the ⌊most⌋ holy place in this way for all their sins because of the Israelites’ impurities and rebellious acts. He will do the same for the tent of meeting that remains among them, because it is surrounded by their impurities.

Jesus’ sacrifice was different. The day of atonement was a shadow of Christ. Jesus became our sacrifice. He died once for all! He did not have to die more than once. He does not continually die. He is now our risen Lord! He died once for all, to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.

Hebrews 9:22-28 (HCSB)
22 According to the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. 23 Therefore it was necessary for the copies of the things in the heavens to be purified with these ⌊sacrifices⌋, but the heavenly things themselves ⌊to be purified⌋ with better sacrifices than these. 24 For the Messiah did not enter a sanctuary made with hands (only a model of the true one) but into heaven itself, so that He might now appear in the presence of God for us. 25 He did not do this to offer Himself many times, as the high priest enters the sanctuary yearly with the blood of another. 26 Otherwise, He would have had to suffer many times since the foundation of the world. But now He has appeared one time, at the end of the ages, for the removal of sin by the sacrifice of Himself. 27 And just as it is appointed for people to die once—and after this, judgment— 28 so also the Messiah, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for Him.

Stage 2 – Scapegoat

On the day of atonement, one goat would be sacrificed to purify the people from their sins. Another goat would be sent into the wilderness as a scapegoat for the people. Before the scapegoat was sent into the wilderness, the priest would put his hands on the goat and confess the sins of the nation. Then the goat would be sent into the wilderness, symbolizing that those sins would be remembered no more by the LORD.

The sacrifice of the first goat represents the means of salvation – the blood covers over our sins. The scapegoat represents the effects of salvation – our sins are remembered no more.

The scapegoat is another shadow of Christ, as is evidenced in these and other verses:

Hebrews 13:12 (HCSB)
12 Therefore Jesus also suffered outside the gate, so that He might sanctify the people by His own blood.

Isaiah 53:6 (NIV)
6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

PEOPLE

On the day of atonement, covering for sin was available to all, not just to one particular nation or people. And today, salvation is available to all who will believe.

Leviticus 16:29 (HCSB)
29 “This is to be a permanent statute for you: In the seventh month, on the tenth ⌊day⌋ of the month you are to practice self-denial and do no work, both the native and the foreigner who resides among you.

Romans 10:13 (HCSB)
13 For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

The ceremony on the day of atonement was a temporary covering for past sins. The atoning sacrifice of Christ on the cross was a permanent covering for all of our sins, to all who will put their trust in Jesus.

Leviticus 16:30 (HCSB)
30 Atonement will be made for you on this day to cleanse you, and you will be clean from all your sins before the Lord.

Hebrews 9:24-28 (HCSB)
24 For the Messiah did not enter a sanctuary made with hands (only a model of the true one) but into heaven itself, so that He might now appear in the presence of God for us. 25 He did not do this to offer Himself many times, as the high priest enters the sanctuary yearly with the blood of another. 26 Otherwise, He would have had to suffer many times since the foundation of the world. But now He has appeared one time, at the end of the ages, for the removal of sin by the sacrifice of Himself. 27 And just as it is appointed for people to die once—and after this, judgment— 28 so also the Messiah, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for Him.

On the day of atonement, the people needed to come to the tabernacle with the right attitude and the right focus, and simply rest in the LORD. That is the way of our salvation: we are saved by grace through faith!

Leviticus 16:31 (HCSB)
31 It is a Sabbath of complete rest for you, and you must practice self-denial; it is a permanent statute.

Ephesians 2:8-9 (HCSB)
8 For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift— 9 not from works, so that no one can boast.

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