All of us, at some time or another, have experienced hurt or pain as a result of another person or group of persons. When this happens, what is your first reaction? Mine is far too often to lash out, to retaliate in kind, or worse. I want to hurt them like they hurt me. My first inclination is rarely to forgive. But why do I eventually forgive the one who hurt me so deeply? Because I have been forgiven much.
In this essay we move on to the third book of the Bible called Leviticus. In this essay we’ll focus on the sacrifices presented in the temple. We’ll center our attention on Leviticus 16 and the Day of Atonement.
Making Atonement for Sin
The Day of Atonement (Heb. Yom Kippor) was the one time a year the high priest was allowed to enter into the Most Holy Place to make atonement (Lev 16:1–2, 34) for himself, his household (16:3–6, 11–14), and the sins of the people (7–10, 15). Animals were sacrificed to make atonement for all the sins of the people. The blood of the bull that was sacrificed for the high priest and his family’s sin was sprinkled seven times upon the atonement cover, that is, the lid of the Ark of the Covenant (16:11–14). The same was done with the blood of the goat that was sacrificed as a sin offering for the sins of the people (16:15). Later, the high priest would leave the tabernacle and put some of the blood of the bull and goat on the altar of burnt offering in order to consecrate from the uncleanliness of all the Israelites including the high priest and his family (16:18–19).
Next, the high priest would take the remaining live goat (the scapegoat), place his hands upon it, and ceremonially transfer the sins of Israel to the goat. The scapegoat was then led into the wilderness, thus carrying the sins of the people away from them (16:20–22).
Finally, the high priest would sacrifice the two rams for the burnt offering (cf. 16:3, 5), one to make atonement for himself and the other to make atonement for the people (16:23–24). The fat of the sin offering was to be burned upon the altar of burnt offering also (16:25).
The Reasons for the Sacrifices
Leviticus 16 gives two reasons for the specific sacrifices made on the Day of Atonement. The first is in regards to the blood of the bull and goat sprinkled upon the atonement cover (mercy seat) in the Most Holy Place: “In this way he [the high priest] will make atonement for the Most Holy Place because of the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites, whatever their sins have been” (16:16) [emphasis added]. The sins of the people are an affront to God. He is holy and cannot be in the presence of sinful people. The Most Holy Place where his presence would come down and dwell among Israel must be cleansed on account of the sins of the Israelites.
The second reason is related to the entire Day of Atonement: “On this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the Lord, you will be clean from all your sins” (16:30) [emphasis added]. Once again, the text stresses that the Israelites needed to be cleansed of all their sins.
The Limitations of the Day of Atonement and Old Covenant Sacrificial System
The closing verse of Leviticus 16 reminds us of the insufficiency for the Day of Atonement to truly and fully atone for human sin: “This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: Atonement is to be made once a year for all the sins of the Israelites” (16:34). The sacrifices that took place on the Day of Atonement had to be repeated year after year. In fact the author of Hebrews makes it pointedly clear that these sacrifices “can never take away sins” (Heb 10:11; cf. 1 Sam 15:22; Pss 40:6; 51:16; Hos 6:6; Mic 6:6–8).
So what would it take to fully and truly atone for the sins of human beings? The author of the letter to the Hebrews provides the answer. Hebrews 9 describes how the old covenant sacrifices, in particular those done on the Day of Atonement, were limited in the extent to which they could atone for sin. However, Jesus “entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption” (Heb 9:12; cf. 9:25–28). The blood of bulls and goats could never truly pay the penalty for our sin against God. What was necessary was a human being to represent us, one who could and would willingly lay down his life on our behalf. Jesus was fully human and willingly gave his life in the place of sinful humanity, bearing the punishment due us for our sins (2:14–18). Not only that, but Jesus’ sacrificial death paves the way for an “eternal inheritance” for “those who are called” (9:15).
Some might ask, “Was it really necessary for Jesus to die?” According to Hebrews 9:22 the answer is certainly yes: “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” Do you remember the consequences for Adam and Eve’s sin against God in Genesis 3? One consequence was that they were exiled from Eden. They were no longer able to partake of the tree of life. They would die because they sinned. Do you also recall what God did to cover their nakedness? He killed an animal and covered them with its fur. Something had to die, in this case an animal, another living thing, so that Adam and Eve’s shame could be covered. From the very beginning, it has been necessary for blood to be shed so that sin can be covered and atoned for.
The author to the Hebrews continues by describing the sufficiency of Christ’s death for us: “And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Heb 10:10). And again in chapter 10 he adds, speaking of Christ’s sacrifice, “And where these have been forgiven, sacrifice for sin is no longer necessary” (10:18). Those who have repented of their sins and trusted Jesus’ sacrifice alone for their salvation “have been forgiven,” and “sacrifice for sin is no longer necessary.” When Jesus cried out from the cross, “It is finished,” the provision for our redemption was truly complete.
The Purpose of the Old Covenant Sacrificial System in Redemptive History
If the old covenant sacrifices could never fully atone for sin, then what was their purpose? First, they were a type or shadow of what was to come, the perfect, once-for-all sacrifice that only Jesus Christ could provide (10:1). Second, they served to remind old covenant believers of the seriousness of sin (10:3). Their sin required that something die. Third, they served as a reminder of God’s graciousness toward sinful humanity. God “in his forbearance … had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus” (Rom 3:25–26).
Theological Reflections & Application
- While God is a forgiving and gracious God, he is also just and must deal with our sin. He has done this once and for all in the person of his own Son, Jesus Christ.
- The atonement reminds us of the seriousness of sin. Something or someone must die for its price to be paid. Christ purchased salvation for all peoples by his blood.
- While Christians are no longer under the old covenant that doesn’t mean they should neglect to read and study the Old Testament (Hebrew Scripture). The Old Testament was the Bible of Jesus, the apostles, and the early church. It contains in its pages a witness (though veiled) to Jesus Christ.