The Day of Atonement
March 17, 2010
Updated September 27, 2021
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This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: Leviticus 16:3-34, Hebrews 9:1-14
Purpose: to remind God's people that a price has been paid for their sins, and to challenge them to serve the living God.
Sermon prepared by Rev. Michael Miedema, Kanata, Ontario
A few decades ago, a number of nations in the Middle East attacked Israel. While the Israelis prepared to celebrate one of their most holy days, Egypt, Jordan and Syria positioned their forces against the nation. On the day when Israel celebrated a national day of atonement, her enemies attempted to destroy her. This was 1973, and it was called the Yom Kippur [pronounced yom kip-poor] War.
For many Jews today, Yom Kippur is a national holiday, much like the West celebrates Easter. Since Israel no longer has a temple, or the tabernacle which was used to celebrate this day, it can no longer be observed according the guidelines we read in Leviticus. And secular Jews think of it much as many North Americans think of Easter. For them, the Day of Atonement has lost its religious significance. But to the Israelites of Moses' time, who were there in the desert, it had a special meaning. The twelve tribes had just been led out of Egypt, they had received the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, they saw God's power, and they wanted to be clean as they lived in the presence of their God.
Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, was the one day of the year when all Israel would gather around the tabernacle of the Lord and be ritually cleansed from their sins. It was the time when God would take away all the sin that had accumulated during the year. It was a day, so the whole nation would be corporately justified before God.
Day of Atonement in ancient Israel
After leaving Egypt, the nation of Israel camped at Mount Sinai. While they were there, they received God's law and built the tabernacle, a place for God to dwell among them. When it was completed, God's glory filled the Most Holy Place of the tabernacle. He remained with His people while He led them through the wilderness and into the Promised Land. The chapters before Leviticus 16 list all the regulations which God placed on his people. They had to remain pure and holy to have God dwell in their midst.
Israel was God's chosen nation, but like us, they were anything but perfect. These were the people who had built and worshipped the golden calf, and who grumbled and complained in the desert. They were a sinful people, and God was a holy God. The two could not co-exist together.
In order for Israel to have a right relationship with God, they needed to have their sins covered before Him. The tribes of Israel camped around the tabernacle, which housed the presence of the Lord. The lived and traveled with God every day. The only way for them to survive such close proximity to God was to have all their sins forgiven.
They understood the words Isaiah said when he saw God in the temple, "Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty." [Isaiah 6:5] Just as the Seraph took a coal from the altar and purified Isaiah's lips, the Day of Atonement was to purify the unclean people who had to live in the presence of the holy God. God had a corporate view of the nation, and as a nation they needed to be forgiven in His presence.
Consider Daniel as he prayed in his room in Babylon. Daniel was a righteous man, but Israel was in exile because of their sins. Yet Daniel did not just pray for himself, but for his people, and he confessed the sins of the whole nation. Or what about Nehemiah, who when he heard the report of those who had returned to Jerusalem from exile, wept and prayed this prayer: "I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father's house, have committed against you. We have acted very wickedly against you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses." In North America we often think of ourselves individually, but God also looks upon the whole nation, and the sins it has committed. Like ancient Israel, Canada and the United States are nations full of sin.
Think for a moment as North Americans how we respond to immigrants, to the homeless, to orphans. Think of how our societies consume, how we are greedy, how many are uncaring, how often our attitudes are not like Jesus. What about our abortion rate, unwed pregnancy, abuse and neglect, and all the things that God hates, yet are rampant among us? We too are in need of atonement.
Selection of the goats vv. 8-10
There were a number of steps the people of Israel had to take as they celebrated this holiday. First of all, two goats are to be set aside. Lots are cast to determine the role each one is to play for the rest of the day. One goat is selected to be a sin sacrifice to the Lord. The other is the scapegoat, which takes the sins of the people into the desert. The sins and impurity which clung so close to the people through out the year were now going to be taken outside of the camp and into the desert. We often talk of a scapegoat as someone who, although not guilty for the sin, takes the blame. The scapegoat took the sins of Israel outside the camp, into the wilderness. It bore the blame for the nation.
In ancient Jewish tradition, the wilderness is the place out of God's presence. It is the area beyond the holiness of God. So the wilderness was a place where sins could be taken and disposed of safely. The scapegoat symbolically took the sins of the nation of Israel back to where they belong. In this way, the nation as a whole would be set free from the sins that distanced them from God.
Sin offering for Aaron vv. 11-14
But before the sacrifices could be made for the nation, first of all, the high priest had to be made right with God. So the day began with a sin offering for the high priest, Aaron and his family. A bull was sacrificed to atone for his sins, and only when he was clean from sin could he perform his role as the mediator for the nation. While he was still a sinner he was just as much in need of atonement as the whole nation. It is still that way, pastors and priests and holy people today are not right with God because of their righteousness; the sin in our lives all needs to be atoned for by a sacrifice.
After Aaron offered the bull to cover his sins, he had to put incense on the fire to create a cloud of smoke, which would conceal the atonement cover - or kippur [kip poor] - of the ark. This was the seat where God sat, the mercy seat. God had to remain hidden from the high priest, so he would not see God and die. Not even Moses, the servant of the Lord, could see God, for Moses was a sinner. For the same reason the high priest could not see God. He had to take the blood of the bull offered for his sins and sprinkle it on the front of the atonement cover, and also seven times before the atonement cover. Seven is a number of completeness. Sprinkling the blood seven times shows that this is fully done. When he finished this, then his sins were fully covered.
The High Priest could only enter God's presence through the blood which was shed for him. But even when he entered the Most Holy Place after his sins had been paid for, he still had to do it under a cloud of smoke from the incense. While he was in the Most Holy Place, he wore a special garment with bells on the corners, so people could hear him move around. Tradition states that the high priest also had a rope tied around his ankle, so that if he was struck down by God or died in the Most Holy Place, his body could be pulled out; since only the high priest was allowed to enter, and only once a year.
Sin offering for the people vv. 15-18
After the high priest had covered the sins of himself and his family, he had to go outside and sacrifice the goat for the sins of the people. In doing this he atoned for their sins and took away the uncleanness and rebellion of the nation. The tabernacle, where God dwelt in the midst of the camp, became polluted and defiled by its proximity to sinners. By choice, God stayed in the middle of the camp of Israel, although it meant that he had to endure their sin every day. Only on the Day of Atonement was this sin completely washed away. The Most Holy Place, the altar, and the Tent of Meeting all had to be cleansed. After the sacrifice had been completed, the other goat was brought forward.
The scapegoat vv. 20-22
The goat chosen by lot to be the scapegoat was brought before the people. The high priest lay both hands on the head of the goat and confessed the sins of the people over it. All the sin, wickedness and rebellion of Israel was placed on the goat. Then it was taken outside the camp, to a solitary place, and released in the desert. The man responsible for the goat led it well away from the camp, to ensure that it did not wander back and take the sins of the people back to them. Later traditions state that the man not only led it into the wilderness, he made sure it could not wander back to the camp by bringing it to the edge of a cliff, and making sure it went over.
This image of the sins confessed over the scapegoat, and then the goat led into the wildernss portrayed in a visual way the sins of the Israelites taken out from the presence of God. The sins, instead of clinging so close as they had all year, were taken away and the nation was once again forgiven and right with God.
Sacrifice of atonement for Aaron and the people vv. 23-25
The high priest then changed out of his ceremonial clothes and offered a sacrifice for himself and the people. This sacrifice is a burnt offering, a sacrifice of atonement. Not only were the sins taken away from God's presence, they were also covered over so they no longer became a hindrance to the relationship of God with His people.
The people of Israel must have gotten the message that their sin was a serious impairment to their relationship with God. Every time they sinned an animal had to die in their place. Sin offerings were sacrificed continually for Israel. But even the blood of another can not take away the sin of an individual, unless the one dying in your place is perfect. And since none of the animals could be a perfect sacrifice, they had to go through this ritual every year. The sacrifices could only point towards the One perfect sacrifice God would offer to bring us complete forgiveness.
Man who takes the goat out must purify himself v. 26
The man who took the scapegoat into the wilderness had to cleanse himself before he could come back into the camp. Because he was near to the goat, which symbolically carried the sins of the people, he was “unclean.” Like someone who has handled radioactive waste, this man had to be decontaminated before he rejoined society. Since the Day of Atonement was a time for all of Israel to be cleansed from their sins, every impurity had to be washed away, so the nation could be completely clean before their God. Each and every sin had to be taken outside the camp and dealt with as God instructed.
The remains are to be taken outside the camp and burned vv. 27-28
Another man was detailed to take out of the camp the remains of the bull and the goat which were used for the sin offerings. Only parts of the sacrifices were used, and the remains had to be burned. Because they covered for the sins of Israel, the animals had become symbolically contaminated. Like toxic waste, they had to be brought outside the camp, because their remains were stained by the sin of Israel. This man was designated to take these remains, which were now polluted by the sins they had covered, outside the camp, and burn them totally up. Like a person who has been exposed to deadly radiation or pollution, he must wash before he can be readmitted into the camp. Then the nation as a whole can be pure before God.
This is how all Israel must become clean before the Lord vv. 29-34
In Hebrews 12 we read “let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.” Our sin, doubt and rebellion gets in the way of our relationship with God, so in order to have a right and renewed relationship, God tells us that we must be cleansed from our sins. And yet we can never accomplish this in our own strength. There are some we might be able to overcome, but who by sheer human effort can rid themselves of anxiety? Can we make ourselves truly care for others, or be compassionate to them? Can we show acceptance to people we loathe, unless God changes our hearts? We experience that every time we try to be good, or overcome sin by ourselves. Israel had an elaborate ritual in order to be clean, but the effectiveness of that ritual depended on God. We can't throw off sin, we need God to come in and change our hearts, turning us from selfishness to selflessness.
This is why in verse 30 we read “this is how atonement is to be made for you.” The Israelites were unable to atone for their sins. They had to look to God to provide a way for them to be made clean. And it is no different for us today. We may be more advanced technologically than the people of Israel, but we are just as incapable of earning God's grace, and we are just as in need of forgiveness. We also need a day of atonement.
We worship the same God, and we, like ancient Israel, are tainted with sin. Our sin is like a toxic waste dump. As Paul has written, "for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God." And like Israel, we can do nothing to atone for our sins. We are powerless to save oursleves, we need someone to make us right with God. We cannot earn our forgiveness. But God is faithful. He has provided a way for us to be reconciled. He has provided the sacrifices, and the scapegoat. He has become our day of atonement.
From our reading in the Old Testament we see the important position which the Day of Atonement played in the life of Israel. For a thousand years the only person who could enter into God's presence was the high priest. He could only go in once a year, and then only after many sacrifices and much shedding of blood. As we read in Leviticus, it was a special occasion. God declared it to be a Sabbath of rest, a national holiday, the Day of Atonement. The ordinary Israelite didn't have access to God. They could only approach Him through sacrifice offered by a priest.
Now let's read from Hebrews 9:11-14
11 When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation. 12 He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption. 13 The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. 14 How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! 15 For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance- now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant. (NIV)
When the Day of Atonement arrived, the high priest had to prepare himself and the whole nation. As we read, the high priest had to offer a sacrifice for himself first before he could offer one for the nation. But Jesus broke the pattern. Actually he fulfilled the pattern perfectly, better than any high priest from the line of Aaron could ever do. Let's look at the high priestly deeds of Jesus, and we will see how he has fulfilled the Day of Atonement.
Christ as high priest v. 11
Christ came as the perfect high priest. It was the role of the high priest to represent the people before God. But before any high priest could mediate for the people before God, he first needed a mediator himself. Already this shows a shortcoming of the system. But Jesus fulfilled a role which no human could ever fill. Before Jesus, a high priest could only enter into the Most Holy Place once a year, and even then the priest could not come directly into God's presence. Remember the sacrifices which had to be offered, and the incense which was burned. But when Jesus came into the presence of God, He didn't have to send up a cloud of incense, so that He wouldn't accidentally see God and die. Jesus Christ could boldly walk right up to His Father. Jesus Christ is the perfect high priest, able to represent his people, yet not in need of redemption as they are.
Perfect tabernacle v. 11
Christ did not enter the earthly tabernacle in order to come before God, but rather He went to where God is. Christ didn't go into the tabernacle, which was but an earthly replica of the heavenly reality. He didn't just come before God on earth, but before God in heaven. He ascended and is sitting at the right hand of God the Father. The high priest had to go into the tabernacle every year. By this we can see that he was unable to do once and for all what needed to be done. The high priest could not offer the perfect sacrifice and fulfill the Day of Atonement. Christ has no need for a tabernacle, or a temple. He doesn't need a mercy seat, or an ark of the covenant. Christ as our high priest is able to go right to God's presence every day, to plead for our case. He has done away with the external regulations which applied until the time of His new order.
Christ enters without blood of goats and calves v. 12
Unlike the high priest who had to sacrifice not only for the people of Israel but also for himself, Christ is a perfect high priest, without any taint of sin or imperfection. He can enter into the presence of God without the need of a sacrifice. Because he is perfect, he enters into the throne room of God every day, not just on the Day of Atonement. Aaron needed the blood of goats and calves. Christ can always enter in and plead for our atonement. Christ not only could make the perfect sacrifice for us, He became the perfect sacrifice in our place.
Entered the Most Holy Place v. 12
Just as every high priest before him, Jesus went into the very presence of God. All the other high priests had to put incense on the altar so that they would not walk in and see God. They feared for their lives while they were in the Most Holy Place. The high priest would have bells on the corners of his garments so other priests could hear him move around. He would have a rope tied to his ankle so that he could be pulled out from the Most Holy Place if he saw God, or he was found to be with sin, and died. Jesus didn't have to worry about this. He went into God's presence on our behalf without fear. As our representative, Jesus came before God and asked for our atonement. And being the perfect high priest he has achieved for us the perfect redemption and atonement.
By his own blood v. 12
The high priest always had to offer a sacrifice to cover his own sins before the sight of God. Jesus didn't have to offer that sacrifice, because he was without sin. He was perfectly obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Throughout history, every other high priest offered a sacrifice for himself first, and only then for the Israelites. Jesus not only offered a sacrifice for His people, He was that sacrifice. Once and for all he fulfilled the requirements of the Day of Atonement. No longer do we need to gather together and have a priest confess our sins over a goat. We don't need to have a goat and a bull offered so that we might be forgiven, or so we can continue to live with God. Jesus Christ by his own blood paid the supreme price for our sins.
Obtained eternal redemption v. 12
The sacrifice of goats and calves could never effect permanent peace with God. These sacrifices had to be repeated each year. The high priest entered the Most Holy Place each year, and placed blood on the altar to atone for the sins of the nation. Leviticus mentions that he sprinkled it seven times before the atonement cover. But this could only ceremonially cover the sins of the past year. Christ accomplished redemption once for all time. His atonement was an eternal one. It never needs to be repeated or redone. His blood lasts forever. We speak of some technical theological terms like expiation, and propitiation. What this means is that the sacrifice both covers over the sin, and takes away God's wrath. Christ both covers our sin, and has taken away the anger of God towards sin. We are eternally redeemed.
The ceremonially unclean can only be made outwardly clean v. 13
Under the old covenant, when the high priest offered the sacrifice, it could only effect an outward cleansing. It covered sin, but could never deal with it in a permanent way. Each time someone sinned, a sacrifice had to be offered again. It was a never ending practice. It began in the Garden of Eden, after Adam and Eve sinned. God made them clothes from animal skins. They saw and learned that blood had to be shed; an animal had to die in their place to make them right with God.
For there to be a permanent solution, a perfect sacrifice had to be made; one which for all eternity could bridge the gulf between sinful humanity and a perfect, sinless Deity. The one to be sacrificed had to be human, for us humans had sinned. Yet the sacrifice had to be God, because only God was infinite enough to cover the awful greatness of the sins which had been committed. Someone was needed who could both intercede for us, and pay for us. And only Jesus Christ was that perfect sacrifice. He both was the perfect high priest which could offer the sacrifice, and the perfect sacrifice, giving up his life for your place. He died that you might live.
Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell us that when Jesus died that the temple curtain was torn in two, from top to bottom. No longer was God separated from his creation. The curtain which kept the people out from the Most Holy Place was torn by God himself. Before that, the high priest could only enter once a year. Now we can enter the Most Holy Place every day because of what Christ has done on our behalf.
Blood of Christ cleanses our consciences v. 14
Christ's blood is the all sufficient sacrifice. It covers not only our sin but also our conscience. The sacrifices of the Old Testament only had a limited effect. They could not offer forgiveness, but they did point towards the ultimate sacrifice that frees us from sin. The reality of the cost of sin was much more visible to the Old Testament Israelites than to us today. We never have to see blood being shed because of our sins. We don't see a goat, with the sins of the whole camp confessed over its head, being led into the wilderness. It's a powerful image. They could literally see that their sins were taken away when the man led the goat out of the camp. We miss that image.
Deitrich Boenhoffer, a German theologian during the Nazi rule, accused his generation of living with cheap grace. We accept grace without realizing the cost. We so easily think that we can continue to sin and expect God to continue to forgive. But just as the goat was led out of the camp, so Christ was taken out of the city, to the place called the skull, in order to be put to death. Like the goat, he bore our sins upon himself. Let's not forget that image. Grace is not cheap. It cost God His only Son.
Offered himself unblemished to God v. 14
Through the power of the Holy Spirit Jesus Christ offered himself on your behalf. Unlike the other sacrifices, Jesus knew exactly what was happening. He choose to die for us, in our place, so that we might be washed clean from our sins. He bore our sins, and took our punishment upon Himself. .
So we may serve the living God v. 14
Jesus fulfilled the Day of Atonement many years ago, outside of Jerusalem. All the sacrifices, all the scapegoats sent into the wilderness, and all the dressings and washings were fulfilled when he died on the cross. The Day of Atonement was celebrated through all those centuries so that God could live near his people. In Jesus Christ, as we have read from the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, that day found its completion. At the end of verse 14 we read that "The blood of Christ ... cleanses our consciences ... so that we may serve the living God." His sacrifice was not so we could stop worrying about eternal life. It was not so that we wouldn't be anxious when the temple was destroyed. The blood of Jesus Christ was shed so that we could be made right with God. Now that your sins are covered, God frees you to serve him.
So what does this all mean? We have seen how Jesus fulfilled the Day of Atonement. Because the sacrifice had to be repeated each year, we could never be completely forgiven. Now that forgiveness has been accomplished once and for all time. As the New Testament church we are the people of God. We look back on the Old Testament and see the necessity of a blood sacrifice to cleanse people from sin. But we no longer need to shed blood in order to be made right with God. God has washed you from your sins, and given you a perfect redemption. Now you are free to serve the living God. Israel could not do this because she was in constant slavery to sin. But Christ's sacrifice sets you free from bondage and allows you to go out and serve God.
How will you serve? What will your response of gratitude be? Ask God to open the way for you to extend grace to others, just as you have received it from Him. Amen.
Prayer of Application: [From Daniel 9] "O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with all who love him and obey his commands, we have sinned and done wrong. We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws. We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name. "Lord, you are righteous, but this day we are covered with shame – we are covered with shame because we have sinned against you. The Lord our God is merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against him; we have not obeyed the LORD our God or kept the laws he gave us through his Word. We have transgressed your law and turned away, refusing to obey you. "Therefore the curses and sworn judgments written in the Law of Moses, the servant of God, have been poured out on us, because we have sinned against you. You have fulfilled the words spoken against us and against our rulers by bringing upon us great disaster. Just as it is written in the Law of Moses, all this disaster has come upon us, yet we have not sought the favor of the LORD our God by turning from our sins and giving attention to your truth. The LORD did not hesitate to bring the disaster upon us, for the LORD our God is righteous in everything he does; yet we have not obeyed him. "Now, O Lord our God, who brought your people out of Egypt with a mighty hand and who made for yourself a name that endures to this day, we have sinned, we have done wrong. O Lord, in keeping with all your righteous acts, turn away your anger and your wrath. Our sins and the iniquities of our fathers have made us an object of scorn to all those around us. "Now, our God, hear the prayers and petitions of your servant. Because of Jesus Christ your Son, O Lord, look with favor on your desolate sanctuary. Give ear, O God, and hear; open your eyes and see the people and church that bears your Name. We do not make requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy. O Lord, listen! O Lord, forgive! O Lord, hear and act! For your sake, O my God, do not delay, because your people bear your Name." Remind us again of the terrible price that has been paid to cover our sins. Let us understand again Your holiness. Let us see the death of Christ on the cross for our sins. Let us know that the price has been fully paid for all our sins. Let us have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for He who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another — and all the more as we see the Day approaching. Amen.
Order of Worship
GOD GATHERS US FOR WORSHIP
Call to Worship:Psalm 8 responsively
Opening Song “Lord, Our Lord, Your Glorious Name” PsH #8
God’s Greeting: Revelation 1:4b-6
Songs of Praise: “Holy Holy Holy Lord God Almighty” PsH #249
“Praise To The Lord, The Almighty” PsH #253
“Glorious Things of You Are Spoken” PsH #506
GOD REMINDS US OF HIS GRACE
Call to Confession:
God called His people to live in covenant with Him, as they dwelt in His presence. As a holy and perfect God, He can not tolerate the presence of sin. He tells us in His Word how we are to live in communion with Him: And God spoke all these words… Exodus 20
Prayer of Confession:
Like the Israelites of long ago, we too must keep from sin. Yet if we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that we have sinned. By the words we have said, by the things we have done, even through the words we have left unsaid and things undone, we have not lived as God has called us to live. We confess that the fear of God has not kept us from sinning. We stand guilty and convicted before God, without hope in ourselves. So again we turn to the One who is our hope, Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God. It is in Him that we trust, and into His hands we place our sins, and our lives. Forgive us, Holy God, in the name of Your Son Jesus we pray. Amen.
Declaration of God’s Grace for Sinners: Romans 7:21-8:4
Song of Dedication: “And Can It Be” PsH #267
God’s Will for His People: Romans 8:9-17
GOD SHAPES US THROUGH HIS WORD
Prayer for Illumination
Scripture Readings: Leviticus 16:3-34 and Hebrews 9:1-15
Sermon: “The Day of Atonement”
WE RESPOND TO GOD’S SHAPING
Song of Response: “Great is Thy Faithfulness” PsH #556
GOD SENDS US OUT INTO HIS WORLD
God’s Parting Blessing: Hebrews 3:20-21
Our Parting Praise: “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow” #638
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