Meditations in the Law : No.37 : Atonement
Lev 16:29-34 This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: On the tenth day of the seventh month you must deny yourselves and not do any work–whether native-born or an alien living among you– because on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the LORD, you will be clean from all your sins. It is a Sabbath of rest, and you must deny yourselves; it is a lasting ordinance. The priest who is anointed and ordained to succeed his father as high priest is to make atonement. He is to put on the sacred linen garments and make atonement for the Most Holy Place, for the Tent of Meeting and the altar, and for the priests and all the people of the community. This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: Atonement is to be made once a year for all the sins of the Israelites.”
In Exodus we find, “Once a year Aaron shall make atonement on its horns. This annual atonement must be made with the blood of the atoning sin offering for the generations to come. It is most holy to the LORD.” (Ex 30:10) In Exodus it was Aaron who was to do it but in Leviticus, as it looks to the future, it is simply the high priest. Atonement is a major issue that comes up in the Law. Already we have seen it a number of times as it is mentioned in respect of the offerings, e.g. “the burnt offering… will be accepted on his behalf to make atonement for him.” (Lev 1:4). Thus even the most basic of the offerings, the burnt offering had an atoning element about it.
Atonement refers to the act of a substitute dying to pay the price of sin for the Offeror to reconcile them to God. It involves the recognition of sin which separates from God, the need for punishment of that sin so that justice is done, and a substitute that bears the sin, the guilt and the punishment so that the sin and its consequences is dealt with and there is nothing to keep God from the Offeror and the Offeror from God.
Thus in any approach to God by a sinful human being there must be a recognition of our sinful state which keeps us from the Holy God. Thus in the Sin Offering it features strongly (7 references in chapter 4 & 5) and also in the Guilt Offering (3 references in chapter 5 & 6). It does not apply in the freewill offerings of the Grain Offering and the Fellowship Offering.
Now in chapter 16 of Leviticus, we find the details of what was to be a once a year action by the high priest. At the beginning of the chapter we find this serious warning: “Tell your brother Aaron not to come whenever he chooses into the Most Holy Place behind the curtain in front of the atonement cover on the ark, or else he will die, because I appear in the cloud over the atonement cover.” (Lev 16:2) Thus we see a prohibition of coming into the Most Holy Place (old versions – the Holy of Holies), the innermost part of the Tabernacle where the Ark of the Covenant resided (a representation of the presence of God). In other words, the presence of the Lord was a place of danger for sinful human beings. The Holy Presence of God would burn up sin and the sinner along with it unless the sin was first dealt with. Thus on this one day a year, there was to be a ceremonial dealing with Sin.
Even Aaron’s approach was prescribed – with a sin offering (a bull) and burnt offering (a ram) (v.3), in special clothes (v.4). In addition he was to take two goats for a sin offering from the people and a ram for an additional burnt offering (v.5). He offers the bull as a sin offering for himself (v.6) and one goat as a sin offering for (implied) the people (v.7-9) and the other goat is sent into the desert (v.10). The details of these offerings follow – the bull (v.11-14) and the goat (v.15), sprinkling the blood of both on the ‘atonement cover’, the lid of the ark. This is a sign of life being given the sins of Israel (v.16). He then comes out and takes the blood of both and puts it on the horns of the altar (v.18,19), again to cleanse it and atone for the sins of Israel. The ‘scapegoat’, the second goat which is not killed is to have the sin of Israel confessed over it and it is then released in the desert (v.20-22).
Having done this, Aaron then changes out of the special clothes into the ones he usually uses in the Tabernacle, and makes a burnt offering for himself and for the people (v.23-25). The remains of the bull and the goat, used for atonement in the Most Holy Place, are to be taken outside the camp and completely burned up (v.27).
Observe by way of summary, there was a sin offering (bull) and burnt offering (ram) used to consecrate the Most Holy Place, a sin offering of a ram that was released into the desert, and then burnt offerings for himself and the people afterwards.
In the New Testament, in respect of Christ, we find: “Christ … has appeared once for all …. to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people.” (Heb 9:26-28) and “God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished.” (Rom 3:25) and “He (Jesus) is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world,” with the page note saying as an alternative “He is the one who turns aside God’s wrath, taking away our sins, and not only ours but also….” (1 Jn 2:2)
Have we caught the thrust of the truth that comes through in all these verses? Our sin can only be dealt with by death – the punishment that indicates the severity or terribleness of sin that spoils and mars God’s wonderful world and keeps human beings from Him. Either we die, taking the punishment ourselves into eternity, or we let Jesus take it for us. The Day of Atonement reminded Israel that they all needed this. May this study remind us similarly.