The Day of Atonement

This shall be a statute forever for you, that atonement may be made for the people of Israel once a year because of all their sins” (v. 34a).

- Leviticus 16

Continuing our focus on worship as we look at how the old covenant is fulfilled in the new, we will now spend a few weeks looking at the feasts and festivals that were integral to ancient Israel’s liturgy. We begin today with the Day of Atonement, that one day of the year when the high priest could enter the Most Holy Place.

Even though God ordained regular burnt offerings and sin offerings to atone for the sins of Israel, propitiate His wrath, and cleanse the people of their wickedness (Lev. 1; 4:1–5:13), it is clear from the book of Leviticus that even all these rituals were not enough. Sins could be forgotten and not confessed when laying hands on the offerings. The ultimate inability of the blood of bulls and goats to deal with sin (Heb. 10:4) meant that animal sacrifices did not go far enough but were only a temporary measure to cover transgression. Finally, the repeated sins of priests and people alike could build up to the point where not only the tabernacle but even the throne room of the Lord — the Most Holy Place or Holy of Holies — would also be contaminated. The Day of Atonement was designed to deal with all these realities.

Most of the procedures followed on the Day of Atonement were similar to those followed for the other offerings except that the blood of the sacrifices was sprinkled on the mercy seat in the Most Holy Place as well (Lev. 16:14). This was done lest the accumulated sin cause God to immediately punish the high priest and the people. Aaron and the later high priests also had to throw incense in the air (vv. 12–13) in front of them as they approached the ark of the covenant so as to keep them from being able to see the Lord; otherwise, they would have died (Ex. 33:12–23).

Besides the sacrifice of a bull on behalf of the priesthood, two goats were brought to the tabernacle/temple to deal with the sin of the entire nation (Lev. 16:6–10). One goat was killed and its blood was sprinkled on the mercy seat (vv. 15–19). This sacrifice on the Day of Atonement resulted in propitiation — the satisfaction of God’s wrath on a substitute in place of the people. The other goat, after hands were laid on it, was sent to Azazel in the wilderness and freed, probably meaning it was taken to a desolate mountain and killed (vv. 20–22). Here it is clear that expiation was accomplished. The sins of the people were taken away from Israel and away from the holy camp.

Coram Deo

The requirement for the people to afflict themselves on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:29–34), a shorthand reference to self-examination and repentance, was a clear sign that the sacrifices on that day would be effectual only when the people were contrite. Similarly, our sin has not been dealt with if we do not live a life of repentance and faith. Let us be ever repenting of sin as we trust in Christ, whose sacrifice on the final Day of Atonement has saved us.

Passages for Further Study

Leviticus 23:26–32
Isaiah 1:18–20
Daniel 9:24–27
John 19:16b–30

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