The Day of Atonement

The Hebrew word kaphor, which means a covering, occurs 102 times in the Old Testament. It appears more frequently (sixteen times) in Leviticus chapter 16 than anywhere else. This chapter describes the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, one of the most significant dates in Israel’s calendar. Once a year, on the seventh day of the tenth month, somewhere between September and November, God formally reminded Israel of their sins through this elaborate ritual, Heb. 10. 3. No Old Testament sacrifices could remove sin; they only covered it over in anticipation of Calvary, Rom. 3. 25. This feast was of such crucial significance that even today Jews throughout the world keep it with fasting and prayer at the synagogue.

The Day of Atonement was the sixth of seven feasts in the Jewish calendar, the second of three autumnal feasts in the tenth month. The book of Leviticus focuses our mind on Israel’s coming into the presence of God. This is particularly pertinent in relation to the Day of Atonement. Everything about it emphasizes God’s holiness and the care and caution demanded of those who approach Him. Aaron himself would have felt this keenly, especially given that his two sons, Nadab and Abihu, had just been devoured by fire because of their irreverent approach to God, Lev. 10. 1, 2. Even though Christians living under grace, not law, have unfettered access into the presence of God through prayer, they should always approach Him with reverence and godly fear, Heb. 12. 29.

Sin pervaded every aspect of national life. While no Old Testament sacrifice could remove sin, the Day of Atonement provided a comprehensive but temporary solution to sin everywhere in the nation. This included the tabernacle, its altar and priests, as well as every member of the congregation, Lev. 16. 16, 17. On this ceremonial Sabbath, when no work was to be done, vv. 29, 30, there was expected to be a humble reflection, v. 29. As ‘a statute forever’, vv. 29, 34, this remembrance was passed on from one generation to the next; it was never interrupted, even with the death of a high priest.

The whole sequence of actions of the day centred on the movements of the high priest. Washed and dressed in holy linen garments, Aaron brought a young bullock and a ram into the tabernacle court, vv. 3, 4. Having offered the bullock as a sin offering for himself and for his house, vv. 6, 11, and taken a censer full of burning coals from off the brazen altar, and finely beaten incense, he entered the holiest of all, vv. 12, 13. With the cloud of incense shielding him from God’s holiness, he sprinkled the blood with his finger once upon, and seven times before, the mercy seat, v. 14.

It was only after this that Aaron presented two goats as a sin offering for the people at the door of the tabernacle, vv. 7, 15. One goat was to be sacrificed and the other, the scapegoat, was sent out by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness. Casting lots determined which goat would fulfil each role, vv. 8-10. He then slew the goat that was for the Lord, carried its blood into the holiest of holies, and sprinkled the mercy seat as he had just done with the blood of the bullock. Afterwards, he put the blood of the bullock and of the goat ‘upon the horns of the altar round about … and … shall sprinkle of the blood upon it with his finger seven times’, vv. 18, 19. This whole process of applying and sprinkling the blood of the bullock and the goat made atonement for sin, cleansed and sanctified Aaron and his house, v. 6, the holy place, v. 16, the tabernacle, v. 16, the congregation, v. 17, and the altar, v. 18.

Aaron then laid both his hands upon the head of the scapegoat, confessing over it ‘all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in their sins’, v. 21. This act imputed the sins of the nation to the goat. When it was then led into the wilderness, to ‘a land not inhabited’, that sin of the nation was symbolically removed.

Having given over the scapegoat into the hands of a fit man, Aaron re-entered the tabernacle, removed the linen garments, washed himself with water and redonned his garments of glory and beauty, vv. 23, 24. He then offered two ram burnt offerings, one for himself and one for the congregation, which he burnt with the fat of the sin offering. This all contributed to the work of atonement, vv. 24, 25. Returned from the wilderness, the fit man burnt his clothes, bathed and re-entered the camp, v. 26. Finally, outside the camp, they burnt the bodies of the dead bullock and goat ‘in the fire, their skins, their flesh and their dung. And he that burneth them shall wash his clothes, and bathe his flesh in water, and afterward he shall come into the camp’, vv. 27, 28.

The Day of Atonement is a beautiful picture of the person and work of Christ. Even though Aaron seems to have entered the holy place more than once on the Day of Atonement, the New Testament views his movements as but one, so picturing Christ’s one offering for sin, Heb. 9. 7. Just as the high priest removed his garments of glory and beauty, arraying himself with plain, fine linen clothing, the Son of God humbly laid aside the outward appearance of divine glory and became man, v. 4; Phil. 2. 5-8. Unlike the high priest of Israel, who first had to offer for his own failure, our Saviour is without sin, v. 6; Heb. 7. 26. Taken together, the goats symbolized both the propitiatory aspect of Christ’s death and its substitutionary character, v. 8. The fragrant incense reminds us that Christ ‘hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling savour’, Eph. 5. 2. Old Testament scripture presents God as majestic, dwelling ‘between the cherubim’, Ps. 80. 1. Sprinkled by blood, the lid of the ark, where God dwelt, was graciously termed a ‘mercy seat’, v. 15. Aaron going into the holiest alone, as well as the scapegoat being left alone, pointed to the solitary nature of the Saviour’s sufferings on the cross, forsaken by His friends and His God, vv. 17, 22; Matt. 27. 46; Mark 14. 50. Furthermore, whilst Aaron entered an earthly tabernacle, Christ has entered ‘into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us’, Heb. 9. 24. Whereas Israel was barred from the presence of Jehovah, because of where our Great High priest is, and what He has done, we can boldly enter the holiest of all, Heb. 4. 16. When the high priest exerted pressure with both his hands upon the head of the scapegoat, he symbolized the truth that Christ bore ‘our sins in his own body on the tree’, 1 Pet. 2. 24. Christ’s exaltation, after His suffering, is anticipated by the high priest dressing again in his garments for glory and beauty, v. 24; Phil. 2. 9-11.

Sadly, even to this day, the nation of Israel has no appreciation of the full significance of their ritual and ceremony. They never fully understood what they were doing, nor appreciated that it was a picture of heavenly things and the sacrifice of Messiah. To those who gather in local assembly fellowship, there is a recognition that the typical significance of the Day of Atonement points to a day still future when a repentant nation, besieged on every side and in bitter sorrow, realize for the first time what they did to their Messiah, the Lord of glory, 1 Cor. 2. 8.

There is a day coming when God will renew dealings again with the nation of Israel and they ‘shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him, as one mourneth for his only son’. In fulfilment of the national humility on Yom Kippur the nation again ‘shall be in bitterness for him, as one that is in bitterness for his firstborn … And the land shall mourn, every family apart’, Zech. 12. 10-12. Finally, the nation will acknowledge collectively, ‘Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed’, Isa. 53. 4, 5.

How blessed for us as the sons of God, John 1. 12, to humbly reflect:

‘Thy precious blood was freely shed for me
On Calvary
To save me from a lost eternity;
Glory to Thee!
Nor death, nor hell, nor things below—above
Can sever me from Thy eternal love.

Like shoreless seas, Thy love can know no bound;
Thou lovest me!
Deep, vast, immense, unfathomed, Lord—profound,
Lord, I love Thee!
And when above, my crown is at Thy feet,
I’ll praise Thee still for Calvary’s mercy seat’.
[Edward C. Quine]


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