Scripture: “For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you. You shall be clean before the LORD from all your sins.” Leviticus 16:30 ESV
Observation: Israel observed the Day of Atonement just once a year. After ceremonially removing sin from the Holy of Holies (since Yahweh cannot be in the presence of sin), Aaron supervised the scapegoat ritual (16:20–22), changed his garments, resumed purification, 16:23–24a), and concluded with burnt offerings (16:24b). Thus, the purification offerings frame the other rituals (16:11–19 and 25) as a unified ceremony that removes God’s people’s sins accrued throughout the year within the confines of the tabernacle and camp.
While the cleansing protocol is not unique to the various sacrifices, the scapegoat ceremony presents three poignant distinctions from typical animal offerings. First, its name, Azazel, is found only in this passage of the Bible. While scholars speculate on its origin and meaning, there is no definitive explanation. Some argue that it is a demon or a place where evil spirits dwell, but the first syllable (ʿaz) can mean “goat” and the last part (ʾāzēl) “go away.” Regardless, this is the only living sacrifice of Levitical law. Two other unique variances include:
- Two hands are placed on the scapegoat (in contrast to one hand) to symbolize innumerable sins committed by Israel.
- The priest pronounces Israel’s sins simultaneously with the laying on of hands (in contrast to prerequisite confessions) to illustrate sin’s rapid toxic flow.
One last observation, this was the only time during the year that the priest would enter into the “Most Holy Place” (also known as the “Holy of Holies”) behind the curtain where the ark resided. The atonement cover, a gilded lid (also called the “mercy seat”), covered the ark, where the presence of the Lord would hover. But only on the Day of Atonement could the priest draw near God and ceremonially sprinkle the blood of a bull and a goat seven times on the mercy seat and make atonement in this inner sanctum of God for Israel, and only after carefully following cleansing rituals to remove his sin.
Takeaway: The implications pertaining to the work of Christ are numerable. To name a few, first, our unchanging Holy Father will not receive any beings into his presence unless the blood of Christ atones them (John 14:6). Jesus, as the book of Hebrews emphasizes, entered heaven itself once and for all with his blood, “having obtained eternal redemption” (Hebrew 9:12). And in this most solemn act of worship in the inner sanctum, the blood sprinkled before God symbolizes the substitutionary atonement, for “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22).
As for the goat ceremony, Christ bore our sins in his body (1 Peter 2:24), and thus he united us to him in his death and resurrection (Romans 6:5). And like the scapegoat, the Romans took Jesus outside the camp (the walls of Jerusalem) where his Father received his blood sacrifice as a sin offering (Hebrews 13:11-12).
So how should we respond to the Messianic fulfillment of the Day of Atonement? With fear, awe, and gratitude. With reverent fear, we grasp a glimpse of the extent of our holy Creator, who will not dwell amid sin nor tolerate it in any manner. Indeed, this is good news concerning the heavenly place that Jesus has prepared for us, for we can rest assured that our struggles with sin will end before we enter our eternal home. And with awe, we see just how far our loving Father will go to rectify our otherwise hopeless condition of sin. Thus, with gratitude for the Father and Son’s extravagant, immeasurable love for us, we respond with our affections and desires to please them, to make much of them to a lost world weighed down by sin.
Prayer: Father God, with fear and awe, we draw near your holy presence as sinners redeemed by the blood of your Son and offer our heartfelt gratitude to you for pursuing and rescuing us from the penalty, power, and future existence of sin. We confess that we are unworthy of your love and affection but rejoice in the gift of your Son, who has atoned our sins and is worthy of all our honor and praise. So would you please help us make much of your Son to a world that desperately needs him? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling