Originally published September 29, 2017
For observant Jews all over the world, this evening, the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur in Hebrew) is celebrated. The Day of Atonement is the most holy of days in the Jewish calendar. It’s an annual picture of forgiveness that people could have. While Christians don’t celebrate this day, it’s one worth studying because everything about it points to Christ and the gospel.
Atonement refers to God’s work of dealing with our sin. Because of sin, the relationship between man and God has been broken.
Three significant elements of this day are the high priest, who would make the sacrifices, the goat that he would sacrifice, and a second goat who was set free
- Cleansing of the priest
When these commands were given, the Israelites are in their desert wanderings. So where do you worship while you’re on this long journey in the desert?
Well you bring the place to worship with you!
And so the Israelites traveled with the Tabernacle, which was a tent.
Now only a priest could go inside the Tabernacle. It was a holy place. And as we’ve said, the holiness of God demands reverence.
Within the Tabernacle, there was an inner sanctum called the Holy of Holies or the Most Holy Place, and only the High Priest could go in there. And he did it once a year, on behalf of the Israelites. The Day of Atonement.
Before entering, he had to offer a bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering to atone for his sins and those of his family. Because the priest was sinful too
As part of the priest’s preparation for entering the Most Holy Place, the presence of God, was that he had to put on special linen garments. Everything about entering into God’s presence was meant to be holy, set apart, different from everyday life.
Like we’ve already said, everything in this passage points us to Christ.
You have the high priest who had to cleanse himself before entering the temple.
But in the gospels, we see that Jesus is the true High Priest.
And Jesus doesn’t need to purify himself, or atone for his own sin to enter the presence of the Lord because he is the perfect High Priest.
Hebrew 7:26 says, “it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens.”
Keep in mind the purification rituals needed for the priest. The Holiness that was required to enter the presence of the Lord.
While the Day of Atonement was just one day out of the year, there were animal sacrifices. But because Jesus is holy and righteous, he doesn’t need to purify himself to enter the presence of God. He’s God on earth.
Hebrews 7:26 says, “it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens.”
Hebrews 7:27 offers another comment on the priestly system. “He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself.”
The perfect High Priest and it is only because of Christ’s perfection that we are enabled to enter into the presence of God. He is the one who is our representative before God.
And on the Day of Atonement, one of the last things the high priest would do before going into the holy of holies was that he would take two goats.
2. The atonement by the goat
The sacrifices the priest has thus far made is for himself.
Leviticus 16:15 says, “Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering that is for the people and bring its blood inside the veil and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, sprinkling it over the mercy seat and in front of the mercy seat.”
Blood is sprinkled in the Most Holy Place and this is what the sacrifice is meant to do to atone for sins, to cover up our sins. The sacrifice of the goat was meant to symbolically bear the sins of the people.
Leviticus 16:16 says, “Thus he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins.”
All of their transgressions and sins. All of their intentional defiance to God.
Because of the sacrifice of this goat, it was a powerfully symbolic way for atonement, for a restored relationship with the Lord. For sins being covered by the blood of the goat.
Today, we have the gospel. We have Jesus. But before Christ, this would have been an incredibly powerful symbol for the sins of the people being atoned for.
We see that the sacrifices then point us to the greater sacrifice today. That Jesus is the priest but he is also the sacrifice. Because while a goat could not atone for our sins, and while a goat’s blood could not cover up our sins, Christ’s could. He was the worthy sacrifice.
I know to the world, the idea of an animal sacrifice to atone for our sins seems arctic, seems backwards.
But it was merely a shadow. Because our forgiveness could never have been truly paid for by the life of some animal.
It’s not that the sacrifice of that goat actually was the reason why God forgave the people. It was a heart that came to God in faith and recognized the cost of sin that mattered. Just like today.
Hebrews 10:4 says, “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.”
They were never intended to take away sins. It is only the blood of Christ which can do that.
And atones for our sins. He covers up our sins. His blood washes away our sins.
The first goat on the Day of Atonement was sacrificed for sins.
But the second goat wasn’t slaughtered.
And the attention turns to that goat in verse 20.
3. The other goat
20 “And when he has made an end of atoning for the Holy Place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat.
21 And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. 22 The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness.
So our sin is associated with the second goat too. Both hands placed on this goat. It was symbolically transferring sin to that goat. The first goat died and his blood was a symbol of our sins being covered. The second goat is the result of our atonement. It was a symbol for sin being taken away.
Sin totally removed when you trust in God.
What a reminder as that goat is set free. That we are set free from sin because of God’s grace.
If you’re someone who ever struggles to believe that God could forgive you. If you’ve done something really bad in your past, or if you have an area that you’re struggling with today and you feel like God wouldn’t love you, couldn’t forgive you. If there’s ever any lingering worry about that, our sins are taken away because of Christ.
They are totally removed, like the second goat, sent away, never to be heard from again.
We don’t deserve it but that’s how God atones for our sins. He forgives us of our sins. He removes our sins and our relationship with him can be restored.
Because of the work of Christ, because of the grace that God offers to all who accept him, you don’t have to feel that way. Your sins are forgiven. But not only are they forgiven, they’re totally removed, they’re taken away.
Not because we’re so good but because Christ is that good.
Both in the Old Testament and today, what mattered was faith. Trusting in the Lord. Recognizing that we don’t live up on our own. That we aren’t holy. We aren’t worthy.
But when we trust in Christ, he makes us worthy, he makes us holy.
The forgiveness of our sins has a cost we cannot pay.
It’s fascinating as I think of all of the ceremonialism in the Old Testament Law. Everything was done for reasons. All of the exact and meticulous detail under which the tabernacle was built. All of the specific instructions given to the priests, the very specific laws regarding sacrifice, the specific ways in which to approach God. The cleansing that needed to be done, the atonement for sin.
It’s teaching us the holiness of God. A holiness we don’t have, that we can’t live up to. But we are welcomed into the presence of the Lord because of Christ.
For God to forgive us, the Lord paid the price. And he does that for anyone who comes to him by faith. Let this passage be a reminder that there is a cost for sin. A tremendous cost for sin.
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Josh Benner is the associate pastor at Cornerstone Evangelical Free Church in Fergus Falls, Minnesota and has a Master of Divinity from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He enjoys writing about faith and culture. He lives with his wife Kari in Minnesota.