Day of Atonement – Leviticus 16

The Day of Atonement, described in Leviticus 16 and written for us by the inspiration of God himself, is a full-capitals, red ink, double-underlined part of the Bible!

We’ll do a bit of Bible work to see why I say that. Then we’ll look at what’s in Leviticus 16. And then we’ll see why it matters so much to you and me today.

These notes accompany a sermon on YouTube and you’ll find the rest of the series in our Sermon Index.

The Centre of the Centre

The first 5 books of the Old Testament are very much a ‘set’. Often called the Pentateuch (“penta – 5”) or the Torah (which means “law”).

We can give a high-level view that picks out key themes and we quickly spot a structure.

  • Genesis – Blessing and land
    • Exodus – To Sinai; Tabernacle built
      • Leviticus – At Sinai
    • Numbers – Tabernacle dismantled; from Sinai
  • Deuteronomy – Land & blessing

We can ‘pinch’ and zoom in a bit more from Exodus 15 to Numbers 21:

Ex 15 Water from bitter to sweet
 Ex 17 Water from the rock
  Ex 17 Amalekite-Israelite war
   Ex 18 Leadership help for Moses
    Ex 18 Moses’ in-laws
     Ex 19 Arrive at Sinai
     Nu 10 Depart Sinai
    Nu 10 Moses’ in-laws
   Nu 11 Leadership help for Moses
  Nu 14 Amalekite-Israelite war
 Nu 20 Water from the rock
Nu 21 Springwater
(See Morales p26)
This isn’t an accidental arrangement.
Neither does it undermine
the historical accuracy.
But it is a deliberate arrangement
to demonstrate the central focus of
Sinai and the Tabernacle worship
given there.

Guess what? We can pinch and zoom a bit further:

  Lev 1-7 Sanctuary laws
   Lev 8-10 Priestly laws
    Lev 11-15 Personal laws
     Lev 16 Day of Atonement
    Lev 17-20 Personal laws
   Lev 21-22 Priestly laws
  Lev 23-27 Sanctuary laws
If Sinai and Leviticus is
the deliberate focus of the law (Torah),
then chapter 16 is the deliberate focus
of Leviticus.
In the style of writing of the Bible,
this is a key, key focal point.
This is all-caps, red ink, double-
underlined Bible!

Guess what? Even Leviticus 16 has a centre! What could be at the very centre of the centre? We’ll come to it.

The Messiah in the Presence of God

Let’s go through what actually happens in Leviticus 16.

V1-2 We’re reminded about the deaths of Aaron’s sons for offering unauthorised fire. It’s an important reminder, because we’ve just read Leviticus 11-15 and realised how death makes things unclean. Even the holy Tabernacle of God will require cleansing! The Day of Atonement is a national cleansing moment.

Sin offerings

V3-5 introduces the offerings to be brought: 

  • A sin offering and burnt offering for Aaron and his family
  • A sin offering (2 goats) and burnt offering for the people

V6-10 sets things up, describing how the two sin offerings are to be made first and that the 2 goats are to be separated by lot.

Then something amazing happens. 

Remember the set-up of the Tabernacle it its courtyard. A deliberate reconstruction of Eden. A gate to the east, and God present on the earth but unreachable. His presence was in the Most Holy Place, above the Ark of the Covenant. Utterly unreachable, separated from the Holy Place by a curtain.

V11-14 describe Aaron offering his own sin offering.

  • He takes an incense burner fuelled by coals from the incense alter just outside the curtain.
  • Then he puts incense onto the coals.
  • Whoosh! Instant cloud to shield him from seeing God.
  • God who dwelt in the clouds above Sinai is now present but unseen again, hidden by clouds of incense.
  • Because Aaron goes through the curtain into the very presence of God.
  • Inside, he sprinkles blood on the ark of the covenant itself.

In v15-17 he goes back out and sacrifices the people’s sin offering. Again, he goes in through the curtain into God’s presence.

  • Again he sprinkles blood – cleansing the Tabernacle itself from the pollution of Israel’s sin.
  • No-one may go in with Aaron – there is only one mediator between God and humanity, and it’s the anointed High Priest. The High Priest is the only person in the Torah who is anointed (“messiah-ed”).
  • Atonement is made for Aaron, for his family, for the whole nation. Cleansing flows from the Tabernacle outwards.

In 18-19 Aaron comes out and cleanses the altar before the LORD.

The scapegoat

Then in v20-22 he lays his hands on the remaining live goat (the scapegoat). The sins of the nation are transferred to it.

  • The lifeblood of one goat had gone west, into the presence of God.
  • The sins placed on the other goat went east, away from God and into the wilderness.
  • The sins of the people were literally as far removed from God as the east is from the west.

In v23-25 Aaron first bathes, then puts on his usual Priestly robes. Then he offers burnt offerings for himself and the people.

The remaining verses describe some cleaning up and instructions for repeating the Day of Atonement every year.

The Centre: Atonement

What is at the very centre of this central chapter? Atonement.

  • He brings sin offerings first (for himself and the people) – the people and Tabernacle cleansed of sin
  • Then he sends the sin/scapegoat far away
  • Then he offers burnt offerings – a re-commitment to God

In this way, there is atonement for sin.

Read Leviticus 16:16-17 (CSB): He will make atonement for the most holy place in this way for all their sins because of the Israelites’ impurities and rebellious acts. He will do the same for the tent of meeting that remains among them, because it is surrounded by their impurities. No one may be in the tent of meeting from the time he enters to make atonement in the most holy place until he leaves after he has made atonement for himself, his household, and the whole assembly of Israel.

The centre of the centre of the law of God isn’t punishment, it’s atonement.

Get this. It’s full-capitals, red ink, double-underlined for you: The centre of the centre of the law of God isn’t punishment, it’s atonement.

  • Atonement is “at-one-ment” with God – your sins are forgiven; you’re cleansed of all guilt before God; his wrath at your sin is satisfied through sacrifice in your place
  • Blood representing your life has entered the presence of God, taken there by a mediating High Priest.

Now, let’s see how this points to Jesus and how to respond.

Jesus, the Cross, the Centre

The New Testament book of Hebrews says that all these Old Testament rituals were earthly shadows of a heavenly reality. Hebrews 9 speaks about the Day of Atonement and what happened. It then explains how what Jesus did blew the Old Testament Day of Atonement out of the water!

Heb 9:23-24 …the Tabernacle and everything in it, which were copies of things in heaven, had to be purified by the blood of animals. But the real things in heaven had to be purified with far better sacrifices than the blood of animals. For Christ did not enter into a holy place made with human hands, which was only a copy of the true one in heaven. He entered into heaven itself to appear now before God on our behalf.

No wonder the curtain of the Temple was torn in two at the point Jesus died on that cross – the veil of separation was gone. More, the Temple system was redundant.

The Tabernacle/Temple wasn’t simply the place where God dwelt on earth – it was actually the way to approach God. But now there is a new and living way – you come to Jesus.

  • The daily and yearly sacrifices have been replaced by Jesus, who gave himself once for all
  • The anointed High Priest is also our anointed King – the great Messiah who now reigns, and who is the one mediator between God and humanity – right now.

Cosmic Scale

Even more, remember that the Tabernacle was a picture of the universe, the cosmos. The Tabernacle had to be cleansed from the impurities of the sin of Israel. Christ’s work is a cleansing of the whole of time and space from the taint of sin – yet to be fully completed at his return.

The centre of the centre of everything in all time and space is God’s atoning sacrifice of his Son at the cross.

So if the centre of the centre of the law was actually atonement (a way to be right with God)…
and if the Day of Atonement was just a picture of what Christ would do at the cross…
The centre of the centre of everything in all time and space is God’s atoning sacrifice of his Son at the cross – God providing a means for you to be reconciled to him, forgiven of all guilt forever, cleansed, purified, made holy.

Gather to Jesus

The first thing to say is to encourage you to see that the holy God of all Creation has taken enormous steps to enable you to come to him: 

  • He sacrificed his own Son on the cross to be punished in your place – so that there is both justice and forgiveness
  • He did so so that you would come to him!
  • Cast off your sin; repent; turn to him; seek forgiveness.
  • And all your sin will be gone. As far as the east is from the west. He already knows. He’s willing to forgive. Come.
  • Forgiveness and at-one-ment is the centre of the centre.
  • Jesus is the only way to come. He’s willing. Come.

It’s interesting to see how the New Testament letter of Hebrews applies all this too. It’s very positive. (See Hebrews 10:19-25.)

Approach him & Gather round him

You’re to approach God with confidence. Your great high priest is right there, representing you. You’re united to him there, as he’s united to you here. Ancient Israel couldn’t approach God directly, but you can and do every time you pray. You’re in his presence.

And we’re to gather together. We gather around Christ. Not around an altar, or a building, or a band(!). Why wouldn’t you take every opportunity you can to do that, when the Bible says you should?

Spur on and keep going

And you’re to motivate and encourage one another towards love and good works – doing good to one another and to others. All the better to do that when we’re together.

Above all, the fact that Christ’s work is the centre of the centre of everything should motivate you to hold on to truth; keep going: His resurrection is the proof that he has ascended and is now your Great High Priest, ready to return and make you complete in him. All your sin is utterly dealt with. There’s no future in the past. He forgave you utterly and adopted you as his child. There’s no room for you not to forgive yourself or others.

The Day of Atonement was to be a special Sabbath and a sombre day – rather like our Good Friday. A day to mourn your sin and to mourn Eden lost. A day that reminds us and emphasises your sin. You must never downplay your sinfulness before God.

Yet, remembering the cross, we also praise God for his nearness. Praise him for providing a means to approach him. Praise him for his forgiveness – don’t downplay your sin, but don’t dig it up either: You’re forgiven.

Jesus’ work at the cross is the centre of the centre of everything God has done for you. Make that grace and forgiveness the centre of everything you do for him: Gather together; spur one another on; approach God in prayer; keep going to the end.