Sermon: the cost of forgiveness – Leviticus 16:1-22

The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they drew near before the Lord and died, 2 and the Lord said to Moses, “Tell Aaron your brother not to come at any time into the Holy Place inside the veil, before the mercy seat that is on the ark, so that he may not die. For I will appear in the cloud over the mercy seat. 3 But in this way Aaron shall come into the Holy Place: with a bull from the herd for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering.

 4 He shall put on the holy linen coat and shall have the linen undergarment on his body, and he shall tie the linen sash around his waist, and wear the linen turban; these are the holy garments. He shall bathe his body in water and then put them on. 5 And he shall take from the congregation of the people of Israel two male goats for a sin offering, and one ram for a burnt offering. 

6 “Aaron shall offer the bull as a sin offering for himself and shall make atonement for himself and for his house. 7 Then he shall take the two goats and set them before the Lord at the entrance of the tent of meeting. 8 And Aaron shall cast lots over the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for Azazel. 

9 And Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the Lord and use it as a sin offering, 10 but the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the Lord to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel. 

11 “Aaron shall present the bull as a sin offering for himself, and shall make atonement for himself and for his house. He shall kill the bull as a sin offering for himself.

 12 And he shall take a censer full of coals of fire from the altar before the Lord, and two handfuls of sweet incense beaten small, and he shall bring it inside the veil 13 and put the incense on the fire before the Lord, that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy seat that is over the testimony, so that he does not die. 14 And he shall take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger on the front of the mercy seat on the east side, and in front of the mercy seat he shall sprinkle some of the blood with his finger seven times. 

15 “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. 16 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. And so he shall do for the tent of meeting, which dwells with them in the midst of their uncleannesses. 17 No one may be in the tent of meeting from the time he enters to make atonement in the Holy Place until he comes out and has made atonement for himself and for his house and for all the assembly of Israel. 

18 Then 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. 19 And he shall sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times, and cleanse it and consecrate it from the uncleannesses of the people of Israel. 

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. 

    Prayer

Our heavenly Father, 

We again come to you in a Spirit of thanksgiving as we praise your holy name. 

May we marvel at your majesty over your creation. We praise you for the gift of everlasting life which is available to all through your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. 

Forgive us our sins Lord, as we are fallen people in a fallen world. We struggle with our areas of selfishness, our failings, our instances of pride, the times when we choose sin over you. 

Lord, may we come to you on our own in confession of our sins. 

Lord, may you strengthen us to repent and to more and more live for you. May we be daily sanctified through your word and by the power of your Spirit. May we be transformed from one degree of glory to another. 

I pray for each of us that we trust in Jesus, that we know him personally, that we know the salvation that he promises, that we believe in the life that he invites us into, that we have placed our hope for eternity onto his work, and that we might look to him as the greater priest who offered the final sacrifice, as the greater Son who makes us worthy to be your children, and as the greater sacrifice who gave his life for us so we could be forgiven. 

May we all trust in that Lord. For any of us who are hanging onto any vestiges of self-justification or trusting in our own goodness as what will make us right with you, may we turn away from that and trust in Jesus. It is entirely by his work of a perfect life and his abounding grace that sinful people are forgiven. 

We praise you as the everlasting and eternal God.  

Context 

Preaching out of the book of Leviticus 16 this morning. 

By popular demand. 

Yom Kippur is this weekend. That’s Hebrew for Day of Atonement. 

In the Old Testament, that is the most sacred and holy day in their calendar. 

I mentioned this last week, but there are three Jewish holy days in the fall. 

Rosh Hashanah which is the New Year. That was last weekend. 

Yom Kippur – the day of atonement – is from sunset tonight until sunset tomorrow. 

And the Feast of Booths begins next weekend. When we get back into John 7 – Lord willing – next Sunday, that passage is in the middle of the Feast of Booths. 

But today, our focus is on Yom Kippur and our passage outlines the procedures for the annual observance of Yom Kippur. 

As the name suggests, the day of atonement was a day which revolves around atonement and holiness. 

For the ritual aspect, the high priest would take two goats. One, he would sacrifice for the sins of Israel. The second, would be released into the wilderness. 

But there’s much more that this passage has to say. 

As Christians, we don’t have a mandate to observe this holiday. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not worth studying in the scripture. 

Because everything in this passage points us to Christ and the gospel.

As another note. The word atonement. Atonement refers to God’s work of dealing with our sin. 

Because of sin, the relationship between man and God has been broken. 

But with the Day of Atonement, it was an annual picture of forgiveness that people could have. 

Secondary introduction 

Before we fully delve into this passage, I have a couple brief things to note. 

Leviticus is the third book of the Bible. 

In Leviticus, we see the many of the laws of God given to Israel which regulated Israelite conduct for sacrifices, for worship, for ritual cleanliness, for the priestly system, for the observance of the holy days. Among other things. 

And with that, we come to Leviticus 16.  

Bridge 

The main idea of this passage is that the forgiveness of our sins have a cost we cannot pay. 

We unfortunately don’t have the time to cover everything in this chapter this evening. So we’re going to focus on three things. A priest and 2 goats. 

I. The priests

The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they drew near before the Lord and died, 

To give some background. This first verse is referring to an event in Leviticus 10.

In Leviticus, Aaron – the brother of Moses – is the High Priest. 

In chapter 10, after the commands had been given for the priests about various the offerings and practices, Aaron’s two sons go and they defiantly do unauthorized sanctuary rituals.

And God strikes them dead. (Leviticus 10:1-2) That might sound like a fairytale or a made up story. 

That a couple of Old Testament priests got it wrong and God struck them dead. 

I think our initial reaction of that might be that that’s too heavy handed. That that punishment doesn’t fit the crime, that that’s too severe. 

But what that does is shows us the reverence we are meant to take for the holiness of God. 

# It’s a point that I’ve made before, but we do not approach God in any ole way we want to. We don’t approach God on our terms. 

I think our society pays little attention to the holiness of God. 

# Some people just want to emphasize the love of God. And God is love. And he is infinite in His love, he is perfect in His love. And He loves you more than you could ever comprehend or appreciate. 

But he is also awesomely holy. And approaching Him demands reverence. 

And so a transgression that profanes the holiness of a righteous God is something that does warrant death. It’s God’s grace that he does not strike people dead whenever they sin. He would be within his righteous justice to do so. 

But the Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness (Exodus 34:6). 

But there is wrath towards sin. 

And Aaron’s son’s bore that wrath for their action.  

When we judge God’s judgment of sin, that shows a low view of God’s holiness. We can never be too holy in our lives, and Jesus shows we can never be holy enough. There is total holiness needed to approach God.  

Do you look at God as being Holy? Morally righteous, set apart? Mighty and majestic? Worthy of praise and glory? A God who is so great that you could never truly be worthy to enter his presence on your own? 

Because that’s who God is. 

# There’s nothing casual about God. There’s nothing informal about approaching God. That no one has the right to profanely approach God. The two sons of Aaron, God knew saw their actions, he knew their hearts. 

And so it’s in that context that the Lord has spoken to Moses who then tells the message to his brother Aaron, who’s the priest. 

2 and the Lord said to Moses, “Tell Aaron your brother not to come at any time into the Holy Place inside the veil, before the mercy seat that is on the ark, so that he may not die.

 So we see here a stern warning given. 

Where the text says “not to come at anytime,” it obviously doesn’t mean that the high priest couldn’t go ever. It meant he couldn’t come anytime he wanted. 

The text mentions something called “the Holy Place.” 

What’s that? 

History 

It’s referring to the inner sanctuary of the tabernacle. 

As we’ve talked about numerous times, during the Israelite’s desert wanderings, they did not have the temple to worship in. They were on the move. And so God had instructed the tabernacle, which allowed them to bring the place of worship with them during their wanderings. 

The tabernacle was a tent and it was portable. 

Now the tabernacle was a holy place. And as we’ve said, the holiness of God demands reverence. Inside the tabernacle was an inner sanctuary which was called the Most Holy Place. Or the Holy or Holies. Or the Sanctum Sanctorum, in Latin. 

And not just anyone could enter the Most Holy Place. It was reserved for the high priest, and even he could only go in once a year. On the Day of Atonement. 

And the high priest was able to be in the presence of the Lord, that one day, as a representative on behalf of all of the Israelites. 

Verse 3 starts to get at the procedures by which the High Priest could enter the Most Holy Place. 

 3 But in this way Aaron shall come into the Holy Place: with a bull from the herd for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering.

The text says that 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.

Verse 4 continues: He shall put on the holy linen coat and shall have the linen undergarment on his body, and he shall tie the linen sash around his waist, and wear the linen turban; these are the holy garments. He shall bathe his body in water and then put them on. 

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. 

He had to wash before entering the Most Holy Place.

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. 

Then he shall take the two goats and set them before the Lord at the entrance of the tent of meeting. 

And the two goats are absolutely essential to the Day of Atonement. 

Verse 8 says that the High Priest would cast lots over the two goats. 

Casting lots is similar to rolling dice. In this situation, for one of the goats, you would cast lots, and if they came out a certain way, that goat would be sacrificed, if they came out a different way, the other goat would be slaughtered. 

The ESV says “one lot for the Lord and the other lot for Azazel.” 

Many translations will say something like “scapegoat” there. 

We don’t know EXACTLY what Azazel means. It’s a Hebrew word. It could mean goat who’s released, or “scapegoat.” It could mean that. It could also be referring to the wilderness that the surviving goat was released into. 

We don’t know 100% either way. 

But regardless, the point is the same that the priest would take two goats, but only one was sacrificed. 

For the other goat, as verse 10 tells us, he was “presented alive before the Lord to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel.” 

The next couple verses continue the process by which the High Priest would prepare to enter the Most Holy Place. The sacrifices he would make, just so he could enter the presence of God. 

Final preparations before he could enter the Most Holy Place. 

He would take some of the blood of the bull he had sacrificed for his own sins and verse 14 tells us he would sprinkle it with his finger on the front of the mercy seat on the east side, and in front of the mercy seat he shall sprinkle some of the blood with his finger seven times. 

The passage says that he would sprinkle the blood on the mercy seat. 

Inside the Most Holy Place, there was the Ark of the Covenant. This contained the tablets of the Ten Commandments, manna, and Aaron’s shepherd’s staff. Respectively, these were a symbol of God’s covenant with his people, his provision for his people, and the choosing of his people.  

On top of the ark, there was a golden lid, and there was detailed artistry in forging angels in the gold, and this was the covering of the Ark of the Covenant. So you have a holy place with angels who are giving praise to God. It is a symbol for heaven. For the heavenly throne room of God. 

This completed all of the preparations for the high priest to enter the Most Holy Place. 

And so the High Priest enters the Most Holy Place.

Like we said in the beginning, 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: 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. And look at the language that’s used here to describe Jesus. Holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, exalted above the heavens. 

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 7:27 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. 

The forgiveness of our sins has a cost we cannot pay.

So that’s the priest. 

Next, we look at the two goats. 

The first goat. The one who is sacrificed. 

II. The atonement by the goat 

So the sacrifice the priest has thus far made is for himself. 

Verse 15. “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.

So the 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. 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.

As verse 16 continues, he would finish cleansing the tent itself. 

And so he shall do for the tent of meeting, which dwells with them in the midst of their uncleannesses.

In verse 18-19, he would also make atonement at the alter of the Lord by sprinkling blood on the alter. 

Again, 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. While a goat’s blood could not cover up our sins, Christ’s could. He was the worthy sacrifice.

I know to the word, 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 a point that’s worth repeating but 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 was not slaughtered. 

And the attention turns to that goat in verse 20.

III. The scapegoat

 “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.

The first goat is a symbol of the need for a sacrifice to atone for our sins. 

But 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. 

Set free in the wilderness. 

Like in Psalm 103:12 where it says 

12 as far as the east is from the west,

so far does he remove our transgressions from us.

Sin is totally removed when you trust in God. 

Again, this was the most holy day in the Jewish calendar. 

What a reminder as that goat is set free. 

That we are set free from sin because of God’s grace. 

Again, we don’t need to sacrifice anymore because Jesus is the perfect sacrifice. 

What a picture that is. 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 is 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. 

But maybe that’s not a struggle for you. You know you’re forgiven. 

But how are you doing at being a forgiver? 

Because what a challenge that can be? 

In this passage, we also see the cost of forgiveness. And the forgiveness of our sins has a cost we cannot pay.

Forgiveness always comes at a cost. For a sinful humanity, the cost was so great that the only way that cost could be paid was for Jesus to die so our sins could be atoned for. The death we deserved. His blood shed so that our hearts could be cleansed. 

I love this quote from Tim Keller, 

“…God’s grace and forgiveness, while free to the recipient, are always costly for the giver…. From the earliest parts of the Bible, it was understood that God could not forgive without sacrifice. No one who is seriously wronged can “just forgive” the perpetrator…. But when you forgive, that means you absorb the loss and the debt. You bear it yourself. All forgiveness, then, is costly.”

When you forgive someone, you pay the price. And the greater the sin, the greater the cost. If someone does something minor, might not even give it a second thought. But when someone has sinned against you or has wronged you in a major way, it’s hard to just forgive the person.

However you’ve been wronged, whatever rights you may have at retribution or getting back at them. No matter how justified that may seem, that you forfeit any right to be angry or bitter at a person. You forgive any debt of guilt they should have. That’s hard to do. Because in forgiving a person, you’re actually bearing some of the cost yourself.

Incredibly difficult, when it’s something major. 

And yet there’s Jesus, paying the price for our since by sacrificing His own life. 

# That’s how much our sin costs.  

And that’s what we see in the gospel. That our sin was so great that Jesus was the only one who could pay it. Our sin was so great, that God on earth, dying for our sin, was the only sum that could afford it.

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. And the great savior who was the great high priest who allows us to enter heaven, who’s the ultimate and perfect and final sacrifice. And who gave his life so we could be forgiven. 

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