When we began to study the book of Leviticus together, I made the point that the book of Leviticus is at the centre of the Pentateuch, which is the first five books of the Bible. Leviticus is at the centre; and it’s surrounded by the books of Genesis and Deuteronomy which together describe how God has chosen a people for himself to dwell with him in the Promised Land; and it’s surrounded by the books of Exodus and Numbers which describe how God’s chosen people are sinners who sin against him continually.
And at the centre is the book of Leviticus which is about how the Lord was able to provide a way for his chosen, but sinful people to dwell with him. And so, we’ve seen how the Lord instructed the people to bring various offerings to the Tabernacle for the priests to offer to the Lord to deal in one way or another with their sin and with their uncleanness so that the Lord was able to dwell in their midst. And at the centre of the book of Leviticus, which is the centre of the Pentateuch, is Leviticus chapter 16 which contains instructions about the Day of Atonement. The placement of this chapter, at the centre of the Pentateuch, shows how important these instructions are. So let’s look at it together.
Three Initial Points
And before getting into the text, let me remind you of three things to help us understand this passage. Firstly, remember chapter 10 when God’s wrath broke out against Aaron’s sons who had defiled God’s dwelling-presence when they tried to bring him an unauthorised offering.
Secondly, remember verse 31 of chapter 15 where God instructed the priests to keep the Israelites away from unclean things, otherwise the people would also die for defiling God’s dwelling-place.
Thirdly, remember that the word ‘atonement’ can mean either ‘to wipe clean’; or it can mean ‘to pay a ransom’. The former meaning is intended here: these offerings were made to provide purification for sins. Sometimes we read that the Tabernacle needed to be cleansed; sometimes we read that the people needed to be cleansed. So, in verse 16, for instance, we read how the priest had to make atonement for the Most Holy Place. But in verse 30 we read how atonement was made for the people, to cleanse them from their sins. Both the place and the people had to be cleansed so that God’s wrath would not break out against the people for defiling his dwelling-place with their sin as it broke out against Aaron’s two sons.
Verses 1 to 5
Having said that, let’s turn to the text. Verses 1 to 5 are the introduction to the chapter; and verse 1 refers back to the death of Aaron’s sons in chapter 10 who approached the Lord in the wrong way. Then in verse 2, Moses was instructed to tell Aaron the High Priest that he was not permitted to come into the Most Holy Place whenever he wanted; he couldn’t come whenever he wanted, because the Lord was there and Aaron might die like his sons. But then in verse 3 the Lord began to explain when and how Aaron was allowed to enter the Most Holy Place.
In verse 3 we read that he could enter the Most Holy Place with a young bull for a sin offering and with a ram for a burnt offering. A better name for the sin offering — you might remember — is purification offering, because it’s about purification for sin. The burnt offering was brought to the Lord as a ransom for sin. These two offerings were for the priest’s own sins.
The High Priest was then to wash himself and put on special clothes. These special clothes for the Day of Atonement are actually much simpler that the ornate clothes he would normally wear. So, while they were sacred clothes, they were plain clothes.
Furthermore, the priest needed to bring two male goats as a sin or purification offering for the people. He also needed to bring a ram as a burnt offering for the people.
Verses 6 to 10 and 11 to 28
Verses 6 to 10 provide an outline summary of the ceremony which is described in more detail in verses 11 to 28. First of all, Aaron the High Priest slaughtered the bull as a sin or purification offering for himself and his family. Then, according to verse 12, he was to take a censer full of burning coals and incense and he was to go behind the curtain into the Most Holy Place. The burning coals and incense on the censer was to provide a smokescreen to prevent him from seeing the Lord directly, because no one can see the Lord and live. He was then to take some of the bull’s blood and sprinkle it on the front of the atonement cover on the ark of the covenant in the Most Holy Place. He was then to sprinkle more blood before the atonement cover.
After that, he had to slaughter one of the two goats as a sin or purification offering for the people. He was to do with its blood the same as he did with the blood of the bull. In this way, we read in verse 16 — which is the centre of chapter 16 — he will make atonement for the Most Holy Place which needed to be cleansed because of their uncleanness and their rebellion and their sins. When Aaron’s sons defiled God’s dwelling-place, the wrath of God burned against them. But on the Day of Atonement, God’s dwelling-place was cleansed by the blood of the goat which was sprinkled on the atonement cover. Therefore, God’s wrath would not burn against them and God could continue to dwell in their midst.
While the High Priest was cleansing the Tent of Meeting, no one else was to be allowed in it. Then, according to verse 18, the priest had to come out of the Tent of Meeting and cleanse the altar in the courtyard. And having done all of that, he was to bring forward the other goat. This goat was not to be killed, but had to be kept alive. And, according to verse 21, the High Priest had to lay both his hands on its head and confess the sins of the people. He was transferring symbolically the sins of the people on to the goat which was then led away into the wilderness. This was a way of symbolising how the guilt of their sins had been taken away from them. So, one goat was killed on behalf of the people as a purification offering; the other goat was led out of the camp to symbolise how their sins were taken away.
And then we read in verses 23 to 28 how the priest had to take off the clothes he was wearing and wash himself. Afterwards he offered the burnt offerings for himself and for the people and he also burned the fat portions of the sin or purification offering. The man who led the live goat away also had to wash himself. The remains of the sin or purification offering were burned up outside the camp.
Verses 29 to 34
That’s the ceremony. In the final verses — verses 29 to 34 — the Lord instructed them that this was to be a lasting ordinance and they were to keep the Day of Atonement every year on a particular day. In this way, God’s chosen, but sinful people, could dwell with him without being destroyed by his wrath.
Like the rest of what we read in Leviticus, the Day of Atonement is fulfilled by the gospel of Jesus Christ. So, in Hebrews 1, the writer tells us how the Lord Jesus provided purification for sins. He’s our Great High Priest who offered the perfect sacrifice to cleanse us from the guilt of our sins; and because of his work on the cross, we are cleansed from our sin.
Then in Hebrews 9 we read how the High Priest in the Old Testament used to enter only a man-made sanctuary, a copy of the real heavenly temple. However, the Lord Jesus Christ — who is the True High Priest — entered, not a man-made copy, but he entered heaven itself. The High Priest in the Old Testament entered by means of the blood of goats, and by sacrifices which had to be offered again and again, year after year. However the Lord Jesus appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. His blood — shed once-for-all on the cross — cleanses us from our sin forever; and by his death on the cross, he has taken away our sin for good.
And now that’s he’s gone into the true, heavenly temple, we’re now waiting for the day when our Great High Priest will come from the heavenly temple and will appear before us again. When he comes again — the writer to the Hebrews says — he will not come to bear sin — since he’s already dealt with our sin once and for all — but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him. Furthermore, we should note that in the days of Moses, only the High Priest could enter the Most Holy Place; but when the Lord returns, all of God’s people will enter into God’s holy presence. And in the days of Moses, a smokescreen prevented the priest from seeing the Lord; but when the Lord Jesus returns, we will all see the Lord face to face.
So, on the Day of Atonement, the priest offered the blood of a goat for cleansing; and only the priest could approach the Lord and only in a man-made copy of the real thing. But the Lord Jesus Christ has offered to God his own blood to cleanse us forever; he has gone into the true heavenly temple; when he comes again, we too will join him there.
The Day of Atonement points forward to the work of Christ on our behalf and to the great hope he gives to his people. But we can also look backwards from the Day of Atonement to the beginning of the Bible. After Adam and Eve disobeyed the Lord, they were sent out of God’s presence in the Garden of Eden and an angel was put in place to guard the way back to the Tree of Life. And over time, the people went further and further away from the Garden, away from the presence of the Lord.
But then, in the book of Leviticus, we read how God provided a way for at least one of his people to come into his presence, if only briefly and with much fear and trembling. On this one, special day of the year, the priest — who represented the rest of the people — entered God’s presence to foreshadow the time when all of God’s people would be able to come back into God’s presence.
And then, in the book of Hebrews we read how the Lord Jesus offered up to God the perfect purification offering when he offered himself on the cross. And therefore, he was able to go into God’s presence in heaven. That’s where he is right now, appearing there on our behalf, to intercede for us and to plead our cause before the Father in heaven.
Meanwhile, all those who believe in him and who have been sprinkled and cleansed by his blood are waiting for the day when our Great High Priest will appear again and we will be able at last to come into God’s holy presence to be with him for ever in glory.
That’s our great hope which is based on the work of Christ on our behalf. And while we wait for him to come again, the writer to the Hebrews says we’re to draw near to God in worship; and we’re to hold fast to the hope we profess; and we’re to spur one another on towards love and good deeds; and we’re to continue to meet together to encourage one another as that great day approaches.