Before there was a Good Friday, there was a day of atonement, on which all the sins of God’s people from the prior year were atoned for. But it pointed forward to a greater day of atonement.


Leviticus 16

The Book of Leviticus (NICOT), Gordon Wenham

Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord? A Biblical Theology of the Book of Leviticus, Michael Morales

Sermon Transcript

Today many Christians gather to reflect on the death of Jesus Christ. That there was once a man named Jesus Christ and that he died are points few, if any, would dispute. In this service tonight we have recounted the story of his death, but what is the significance of it? What happened on the day Jesus died? Is the headline from that day simply, “Jesus died,” or was there more to it? There are a few ways to answer that question from the Bible. One would be to dig more into the details of the stories we read tonight. Another would be to look ahead in our Bibles, to how Jesus’ first followers explained the significance of his death. We’ve been doing that on Sunday mornings recently as we’ve preached through the book of Hebrews. But a third option is actually to look back at earlier books of the Bible that were written long before Jesus Christ was even born, let alone died.


Leviticus is one such book, though it is a lesser-known book of the Bible. We actually looked at the first 5 chapters or so of it earlier this year on Sunday mornings, and I’ve got to be honest with you: I was hungry for more, so here we are in Leviticus 16 tonight, which is really the climax of the book of Leviticus and in some ways of the entire first five books of the Bible, which we call the Pentateuch. And what God was doing really through all the books of the Bible that were written before the coming of Jesus Christ was preparing his people for that coming, so that when Jesus was born, lived, died, and rose again, people would be able to say, “Oh! I see what’s going on here!” So if we want to understand what was going on in Jesus’ death, going back is one way to do so, and this chapter in particular helps us do so. This chapter is the chapter on the day of atonement, what Jews today call Yom Kippur, the Hebrew words for “day of atonement” and it shines light on what happened the day Jesus died by showing us that full atonement was made on the day of atonement. To understand that, we’ll look at full cleansing from sin, full removal of sin, and the part you play.


Full cleansing from sin


Our passage begins by mentioning the death of the two sons of Aaron, which occurred when they drew near to the LORD. Aaron was the high priest back then, the one appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for the people, and his sons, Nadab and Abihu, were supposed to serve as priests as well, but they died when they drew near to the LORD. You think, “That’s weird; I thought God wanted us to draw near to him,” and that’s absolutely true, but what the death of Aaron’s sons, narrated in Leviticus 10, shows us, is that we cannot simply draw near to God casually or in any way we please. God is holy, pure, clean, and therefore there is a certain danger in sinners drawing near to him. We are not holy, pure, and clean, but each of us is made in the image of God, and therefore we all have some internal sense of justice, however clouded it may be. Every human hates at least some things they consider evil, and at least sometimes, that hatred is justified. Some today hate racism, some hate oppression, some hate child abuse; those things are worthy of hatred! Let’s say you are someone who hates racism, and a known white supremacist decided to just waltz into your house one day with his swastika t-shirt and all. Wouldn’t your internal sense of justice incline you to at least tell them to get out, if not forcibly remove them from your house?


Now imagine that internal sense of justice purified of all the ways we twist it, and magnified to an infinite extent. That’s a dim reflection of God’s justice, in comparison to which all of us are sinners, deserving of condemnation. And Nadab and Abihu were two such sinners who decided they’d just waltz into God’s house, the tent of meeting in which God had promised to make his presence known among his people at that time. Now even if you hate racism, you would not be justified in simply killing a white supremacist. No human a judge, jury, and executioner. We humans cannot take justice into our own hands because we know our judgments are prone to err, and that in the end, all judgment ultimately belongs to the inerrant God. But Nadab and Abihu waltzed into that God’s house! And so they received what justice demanded: God killed them.


That’s not the crazy part of Leviticus. If you really get the real God and the reality of our sin against him, the crazy part of Leviticus is not that Nadab and Abihu were killed when they drew near before the LORD. The crazy part is that in this chapter, Leviticus 16, God makes a way for one sinner, this high priest, Aaron, to draw near to him, without dying! The real God is not only just; he is gracious. He knows the only way for any human to have true and lasting happiness is to draw near to him, and so out of sheer grace, he makes a way for one human to draw near to him, and to make atonement for the sins of all his people. It would be like my hypothetical person who hates racism realizing that he has all the food, and unless he lets the white supremacists into his presence, they will die of starvation. So out of great love for them, a love they do not deserve, he makes a way for them to come into his presence, and that way into his presence is described by the word atonement.


“Atonement” appears 16 times in Leviticus 16, more than any other chapter in Leviticus, the book of the Bible in which the word occurs more than any other book of the Bible. To make atonement for someone or some thing is to enable that person or thing to live in the presence of God. For a sinless person to live in the presence of God no atonement is necessary; the default in that case would be life. But for a sinful person to draw near to God, the default is death, as in Nadab and Abihu’s case, and so some atonement is necessary to enable a sinner to live in the divine presence.


We see the word atonement for the first time in this passage in verse 6, where we read that Aaron shall offer the bull as a sin offering for himself and shall make atonement for himself and for his house. Verses 6-10 summarize the entire ritual of the day of atonement, but verse 11 is where the play-by-play really begins. This chapter doesn’t delve into the details of the sin offering or the burnt offering, both of which occur on the day of atonement, because those details were covered earlier in Leviticus, and if you were with us in January when we looked at those chapters, hopefully they are somewhat familiar to you. In the case of a sin offering, in this case the bull of verse 11, Aaron would kill the bull outside the tent of meeting by slitting its throat. He would then collect the blood in a bowl, bring it into the tent of meeting, and sprinkle the blood in front of the veil in the tent of meeting that separated the first section from the second section.


But notice here that there were some unique features of this sin offering and the other sin offering that occurred on the day of atonement. Verse 12 says he should also 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. In a normal sin offering, the blood was sprinkled outside the veil, but here, for the first time in Leviticus, someone is told to go inside the veil, into the holiest of the holy, the second section of the tent of meeting, in which God promised to reveal his presence from on top of the ark of the covenant that was kept there, a location known as the mercy seat. If you wanted to draw near to God, that was as near as you could get on earth, and now, for the first time, a human is allowed in.


And we know it was not because this one human, Aaron, was a sinless human, because the first thing he had to do before going in was kill a bull as a sin offering to make atonement for himself and his house. Yet because God made a way of atonement for him through the sin offering, he could come in. Once behind the veil, he was to sprinkle blood on the mercy seat and in front of it. And then, once he’s sprinkled the blood of that bull that he killed as a sin offering for himself and his family, he was to go back out of the tent, and kill the goat of the sin offering for the people of Israel, verse 15. He does the same thing with its blood and so makes atonement not for the people. Then verse 16 says he’ll do the same thing for the tent of meeting, probably indicating the first section of the tent, just like in a normal sin offering. Then, verse 18, he even goes out of the tent, smears the blood of both animals on the corners of the altar outside the tent, and sprinkles blood on it, to make atonement for it.


By the end of verse 19, then, the blood of the bull and of the goat have been sprinkled in the second section of the tent, behind the veil, the first section of the tent, and the altar in front of the tent, and so they have cleansed Aaron, his house, the people, the Holy Place, the tent of meeting, and the altar in front of the tent of meeting. In the chapters leading up to Leviticus 16, God revealed all kinds of ways the people could become unclean, some of which were inherently sinful, others of which were ceremonial. Sin always defiled, but certain bodily discharges, skin diseases, and especially death, among other things, could also ceremonially defile. The idea is that in a world under sin and its curse, uncleanness is infectious. It is a pandemic more contagious than any virus. There is sin inside you, in your thoughts and desires, there is sin in your speech, sin in your actions, unintentional sins, sins of ignorance, sins you witness in others that stick with you, sins committed against you that stick with you, and consequences of sin all around us. Leviticus highlights the pervasiveness of these things, and then gives corresponding sacrifices and cleansing rituals.


Earlier this year when I preached on the sin offering from Leviticus 4, which deals with sacrifice for unintentional sins, someone came up to me after the service and said they felt terrible. I asked why, and they said it was because they realized if even unintentional sins were still sin, if even sins of ignorance were still sin, then they were incredibly guilty, more guilty than they’d even thought! Some of you have expressed similar sentiments: How can I make sure I’m confessing and repenting of not just my big, deliberate, obvious sins, but the unintentional ones that seem to just come out of me constantly? If you’re feeling those things and asking those questions, you’re starting to get the message of Leviticus and really of the whole Bible: Sin is so pervasive in you and in our world that it really should begin to overwhelm you.


But what do you do with that then? What most do with that is give up and give in. If you can’t beat sin, you might as well enjoy it, and so they simply live as though sin isn’t real or isn’t a big deal. On the other hand, you can just despair, keep your distance from God, and maybe even harm yourself. But that’s not where Leviticus, or the Bible, ends. That’s not where it intends to leave you. Why is this day of atonement here, after all? I mean, God already appointed the sin offering of chapter 4 and the cleansing rituals of chapters 11-15. So if you sin, you offer your sacrifice, and atonement is done, right? And if you contract uncleanness, you go outside the camp and you wash the way it said and atonement is done, right? Right, but the reality is that you could never possibly catch it all. Sin is so pervasive that if you had to catch every one of them and offer the proper sacrifice for every time to make atonement, not only would you never do anything else, but you’d never make a full atonement! So God instituted a day, one day every year, where the slate was wiped entirely clean, where the atonement went all the way into the holiest of the holy, and covered even the sins that the people didn’t know they committed. Look at verse 33: On this day atonement was made for the holy sanctuary, the tent of meeting, the altar, the priests, and for all the people of the assembly.


Your hope for drawing near to God today is not in your ability to catch all your sins, confess them, and repent of them fully. Your hope today is not in your ability to track down every consequence of all your sins and repair all the damage you ever caused. Your hope today is in the day of atonement, on which God provided a full cleansing for all the sins of all the people of his assembly. And the concept of atonement in this passage doesn’t even end with cleansing. The day of atonement not only cleansed the people and the tent of sin; it removed sin from their presence. Let’s look next at the full removal of sin.


Full removal of sin


This is the feature of the day of atonement that is utterly unique to the day of atonement. Burnt offerings we’ve seen before in Leviticus and sin offerings we saw before in Leviticus, though this one was unique in that in went behind the veil. Aaron offered a bull for himself as a sin offering, and a goat for the people as a sin offering for them. But there wasn’t only one goat for the people for a sin offering. Verse 5 said that he was to take two male goats for a sin offering, though he only killed one. What of the other? Verse 20 narrates for us how the other goat was involved in the sin offering. It says that once he’s done atoning for the Holy Place and tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat. 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. The goat shall bear all the iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness.


Notice even the variety of words: The iniquities, the transgressions, the sins, and in each case the word “all” is attached. Everything from the past year, on that day, the high priest confesses it with his hands on the head of the live goat, and what that represented symbolically was the transferring of those sins to the goat. As he placed his hands on the goat and confessed the sins of the people, he was placing the sins themselves on the goat. The theological term for that is imputation. Though the goat had not sinned, the sins of the people were imputed to that goat on the day of atonement. If you have ever heard the term scapegoat, it comes from here. A scapegoat is an innocent party who takes the blame for someone else’s sins, and so here, this goat is the original scapegoat.


And after the sins are imputed to him, he bears them to a remote area, and is set free in the wilderness. When I think of the wilderness I think of a lush forest; where Israel was at the time you should think more of a barren dessert. Imagine what this showed the people present on the day of atonement: You hear your sins and the sins of your people being confessed by a priest while his two hands are placed on the head of this goat, and then you watch the goat go from the tent of meeting through the camp of Israel, farther and farther away until it disappears from your sight, never to be seen again. What’s that showing you? It’s showing you the full removal of all your sins, and all the sins of your people! Instead of removing you from the camp for your sins, instead of casting you out of his presence into the wilderness because of your sins, God removed your sins from the camp, God cast your sins out of his presence, so that you could live with him in your midst!


At the beginning of the ritual, the defilement of sin had spread all the way into the most Holy Place, the throne-room of God, the place he promised to reveal himself to his people. By the end, the holiest place has been cleansed, the tent of meeting has been cleansed, the altar in front of it has been cleansed, and the sins of all the assembly have been removed from the camp entirely. Full atonement was made on the day of atonement! Let’s close, then, by looking at the part you play.


The part you play


After the scapegoat is sent into the wilderness, verses 23-28 outline how the burnt offering, which was a more standard offering, was to be offered, and how the parties involved in the ceremony were to wash themselves to reenter the camp. When we get to verse 29, though, God moves from a description of the rite to the ongoing institution of it. The first day of atonement was the day Aaron did this, but then he says that it shall be a statute to you forever that in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict yourselves and shall do no work, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you. For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you. In other words, this ritual was to be repeated every year, on the tenth day of the seventh month. And what were the people to do on that day? Afflict themselves and do no work. In verse 31 God describes the day as a sabbath of solemn rest to you.


This is another way the offerings of the day of atonement were different from the other offerings that were described earlier in Leviticus. Take this example from the burnt offering in Leviticus 1:3-7 – “If his offering is a burnt offering from the herd, he shall offer a male without blemish. He shall bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting, that he may be accepted before the LORD. 4 He shall lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him. 5 Then he shall kill the bull before the LORD, and Aaron’s sons the priests shall bring the blood and throw the blood against the sides of the altar that is at the entrance of the tent of meeting. 6 Then he shall flay the burnt offering and cut it into pieces, 7 and the sons of Aaron the priest shall put fire on the altar and arrange wood on the fire.” In this offering, as with all the other standard offerings, the offeror himself must bring the animal, the offeror lays his hand on the head of the animal, the offeror kills the animal, the offeror flays the animal, the offeror cuts the animal into pieces, and then the priests put the pieces on the altar and burn them. That kind of atonement is a team effort: The people and the priests working together. It was not a day of rest for the offeror.


But the day of atonement was not like that. On the day of atonement, God is clear on the part you play: “You shall do no work.” “It is a Sabbath of solemn rest for you.” On the day of atonement, when full atonement was made, when the sins of the people were fully cleansed, when the sins of the people were fully removed, the people did none of the work! And yet even within this chapter we can see that this day of atonement was the not the day on which full atonement was made, because there was not just one day of atonement. Why did God make this a statute forever in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month? If the slate really got wiped clean on the tenth day of the seventh month, why would you have to wipe it again next year? Because by the eleventh day of the seventh month, we’d just dirty it again. Ever year the day of atonement not only wiped the slate clean; it reminded the people that the slate needed to be wiped clean, and it reminded them that another day of atonement was still to come.


Until one day, the final day of atonement came. The Bible speaks of the death of Jesus Christ in this way: “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 53:6). No goat could really bear the sins of God’s people; otherwise they wouldn’t have had to do it all over again next year! But Jesus Christ, the true man and true God, could. On him the LORD has laid the iniquity of all his people. Our sins were imputed to him on the cross. He was truly innocent; the thief on the cross next to him confessed that “this man has done nothing wrong.” Why then would the LORD put him to death? “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” (Isaiah 53:5). Jesus Christ did not just take our sins out into the wilderness. He took our sins to the cross, and then into the grave.


The blood of bulls and goats could never ultimately take away sins; how could it? It was not bulls and goats who sinned, but we who sinned! So God the Son took on human flesh, and after dying and being buried, he rose again and ascended, not into the holy place made with hands, where God promised to reveal himself on earth, but into heaven itself, where not even Aaron went, and unlike Aaron, he so purified it and us that we are now able to follow him there. And he did all this without you and me, and without any assistants. On the final day of atonement, our great high priest, Jesus Christ, did all the work, and he did it in such a way that it neither can be, nor ever will be, repeated. That sacrifice truly cleansed, and therefore that sacrifice will never be repeated.


So what’s left for you and me to do? What part do we play if we want atonement for our sins? You shall afflict yourselves and shall do no work. Afflicting yourself doesn’t literally mean cut your body or something like that to inflict pain on yourself—such actions were prohibited in God’s law (e.g., Lev 19:28). It means to humble yourself, to mourn the reality of your sins. It would have been totally out of step with the tenor of the whole day of atonement if the people had simply not worked and used the time instead to catch up on house chores or enjoy a nice picnic with family and friends. On this day the high priest was risking his life, entering behind the veil, and executing an elaborate ritual to atone for the sins they’d committed over the past year. There was no work they could do to atone for those sins, but the appropriate response to the priest’s work on their behalf was to grieve for those sins.


And so for us, the afflicting of ourselves is not the work we do to atone for our sins. You can’t afflict yourself well enough to atone for your sins, and if you try, that’s a deep, dark hole out of which you cannot climb. Christ’s sacrifice is the only way of atonement, and the appropriate response is to face the reality of your sin that necessitated his sacrifice. In the words of the song we sang earlier, “Ye who think of sin but lightly, nor suppose the evil great, here may view its nature rightly, here its guilt may estimate.” Do you ever take time to mourn your sin? Take time to consider how real it is, how offensive it is to God, how worthy it is of his condemnation, until you really start to be repulsed by it, until you really see it as unclean, until it really afflicts you. Hate the sin, but don’t hate yourself. Afflict yourself, but don’t stay there. Afflict yourself, but don’t then say you’re just going to go improve yourself. Your part in atonement is to do no work! Jesus Christ finished the work. Believe that those very sins you hate were laid on Christ when he died on the cross, he has now removed them entirely from you, he has now cleansed your conscience from the stain they left on it, and draw near to him. Don’t let your past sins keep you away from him. Don’t let the sins you committed today, even on the way to this very service, keep you away from him! You cannot waltz into his presence as you please, but you can draw near to him with confidence through faith in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Full atonement was indeed made on the final day of atonement.