1. Man needs to be reconciled (Rom 3:23)
2. The Cross is where peace was made once for all (1 Pet 3:18a, Heb 7:23-27)
3. God requires blood (Lev 16-17)
4. Believers are sprinkled with the blood of Christ (Heb 9:11-28)
5. Reconciliation can only happen in Jesus (Eph 2:12-18)
Romans 3:23 communicates a simple statement to mankind: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” The message is not popular but it’s completely true. Men are defined as violators, transgressors, and children of wrath in the Bible. Humans are not known to be righteous, and as the news stations proclaim each and every night, mankind is in a fallen state. Our sin has kept us from connection with God because God is holy and cannot even look upon sin; thus, He cannot embrace sinful men and women as they are. We have to be changed.
There’s a catch, though. We can’t change ourselves. We cannot make ourselves acceptable to God because we are the sinful ones, the ones who are counted as violators in God’s eyes. No transgressor, no criminal, can make himself a non-criminal. Sure, he can serve his time and fulfill a sentence, but he cannot erase his record. And the judge must be just when he looks at a criminal. An unjust judge would not be a judge at all.
God is a judge. He sees that we have indeed violated His law and being the good Judge that He is, the lawful thing to do would be to serve us our punishment. Just like criminals that we know in our society, God tells us that we all have a time that we have to serve in order to fulfill the sentence given to us in punishment. The sentence, however, is for eternity. It’s an everlasting death penalty. The Lord has outlined the law and we broke it. He set up the punishment and gave us the warning. But we disobeyed still. And now we’re separated from Him, destined for eternal punishment, and we cannot change ourselves before Judgment Day takes place. It’s a terrible and horrifying predicament.
The rest of the story is the gospel, the elements of which we’ve likely all heard before. Jesus Christ came to earth, God in flesh, in order to save us. He came to stand in the gap that separates us from the Lord, to lay down His life as a sacrifice, paying the punishment we all deserved, raising again to new life in the resurrection, and giving us hope. We are now justified by faith. God, the great, good, and perfect Judge can now look upon us and welcome us with open arms as long as we are found in Christ. If we trust in the message of the gospel, putting the full weight of our faith in Jesus alone, we may have reconciliation with God.
The Bible says, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit,” (1 Peter 3:18).
It also says, “[Christ] is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them. For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a High Priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since He did this once for all when He offered up Himself,” (Hebrews 7:25-27).
The term “once” is used in each of these passages in relation to the suffering of Jesus. What He did on the Cross was a one-time act. His words, “It is finished,” (John 19:30) signified the ultimate appeasement of God’s wrath toward mankind. God’s perfectly justifiable anger toward men and women who had violated His law was “once for all” satisfied. At no time before Jesus’ death was His righteous fury placated. At no time before Jesus’ death could the Father allow fallen men into His heavenly presence. At no time before the Cross could man be forever reconciled to God.
All of the sacrifices of the Old Testament were just a shadow of what was to come. They did not completely pacify God’s wrath; if they did, there would have been no need for them to perform the sacrifices year after year. The sacrifice in reference is that which was made on the Day of Atonement. On this day, which was only observed once a year, Israel’s sins were taken care of through multiple sacrifices.
The tabernacle was at the center of attention during this ceremony. The tabernacle was a mobile facility that contained several different elements – it was much different from a temple or synagogue. In relation to the Day of Atonement, a few aspects of the tabernacle are very important to understand. Inside the tabernacle was a holy place called the Holy of Holies. Its sacredness is emphasized in the original language. In Hebrew it is the Kodesh hakkadashim (Kah-desh ha-kah-dasheem) and it was a place where God would meet with His people. The presence of God was there, so it was very well protected. Only high priests could enter into this place and they did it just once a year. Inside of the Holy of Holies was the Ark of the Covenant, a box that contained the law of God. On top of the Ark was the Mercy Seat which was made of pure gold, and it only became the Mercy Seat whenever sacrificial blood was sprinkled on top of the Ark. God’s requirement was temporarily fulfilled with the animal sacrifices and He could withhold His wrath against the people who had broken the law.
The Israelites were commanded to make two representative cherubim, the class of angel that protects what is holy, and place one at each end of the Mercy Seat. These were also made out of gold. Separating this area from the rest of the tabernacle was a veil, which God commanded to be made by a skillful workman with blue and purple and scarlet material and fine twisted linen, also featuring cherubim in its fabric. This veil not only kept people away from the Ark and Mercy Seat, but they were not even able to look upon this area after its construction. Exodus 25 lays out the plans for this place and it is very detailed.
So, once again, the Mercy Seat was only a Mercy Seat whenever the blood of a sacrifice was applied to it. This idea of wrath being appeased by blood is what is called propitiation. The word is not typical in our vernacular and it’s not a commonly understood term. The word comes from propitiatory, which means “covering.” In the Greek it is hilasterion and in Hebrew it is kapporeth. In the Old Testament, kapporeth always referred to the Mercy Seat, a place where God’s anger was stalled. In the New Testament, the hilasterion was spoken of specifically of Christ’s death and once in the book of Hebrews looking back to the Mercy Seat of the tabernacle in Israel. Both terms are speaking of the same concept: God’s righteous fury being pacified through sacrifice.
The importance of this cannot be overstated. God’s plan has never changed. His methods and His standards have always remained the same. In the Old Testament, as He guided His called out people, He expressed to them that blood must be used to make an atonement for sin. There is no other way.
It was in the tabernacle that God commanded the high priest to ritually sprinkle the blood of a sacrifice for an atonement. Let’s look at this Day of Atonement in action in Leviticus 16.
He shall take from the congregation of the sons of Israel two male goats for a sin offering and one ram for a burnt offering. Then Aaron shall offer the bull for the sin offering which is for himself, that he may make atonement for himself and for his household. (vv. 1-6)
So Aaron, the high priest, could not enter the Holy of Holies at just any time. He is told by God to enter into the holy place and start the ceremonies on the Day of Atonement by making a sacrifice for himself. This is because Aaron could not make a sacrifice on behalf of the people without being cleansed himself. Not just anybody could enter into the Kodesh hakkadashim, only high priests could enter on this one day as their sins are being temporarily atoned for. And Aaron was a sinner just like the rest of the people. Even though he had the title of high priest, he still fell short of the glory of God and needed to make a sacrifice to be counted worthy. He had to be counted perfectly pure in order to intercede for the Israelites.
It is worth bringing to attention the clothes that Aaron wore in this moment. He was not dressed in everyday attire or in something simple. He was to bathe, cleansing his skin from dirt, and to put on special “holy garments.” The word for linen used in this passage means white linen. White is a representation of perfect holiness, cleanness, and purity. These clothes were not ordinary, they were special for this particular occasion. After bathing and putting on the white linen, Aaron could then proceed to enter into the Holy of Holies and make a sacrifice for himself. So this he did, and then made another sacrifice for the people.
He shall take the two goats and present them before the Lord at the doorway of the tent of meeting. Aaron shall cast lots for the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for the scapegoat. Then Aaron shall offer the goat on which the lot for the Lord fell, and make it a sin offering. But the goat on which the lot for the scapegoat fell shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make atonement upon it, to send it into the wilderness as the scapegoat. (vv. 7-10)
Two separate actions were required to atone for the sins of the people of Israel. Not only did a goat have to be slain as a sin offering, but another goat had to be cursed and sent out into the wilderness alone to die. It’s a remarkable concept and it’s why there had to be two animals, similar to the birds used for cleansing of lepers in Leviticus 14. The wrath of God needed to be satisfied and the relationship the people had with sin needed to be completely removed. The Lord communicated this truth to His people through these two goats. This was His plan from the beginning, that sacrifices had to be made, and here we see details as to what is necessary to make a full atonement.
The word “scapegoat” is only mentioned in Leviticus 16 out of the entire Old Testament. The word, in Hebrew, is la-azazel, and according to The Pulpit Commentary, “It has caused a great discrepancy of opinion among interpreters as to its meaning. It has been diversely regarded as a place, a person, a thing, and an abstraction.” At its root, though, it is widely agreed that this term signified something or someone that incurs a full removal because it takes on an unwanted substance. In this case, the scapegoat was to receive “atonement upon it” (v. 10) and would be sent into the wilderness, taking Israel’s sins far away. The scapegoat was the goat that represented sins. As one goat was set aside for Jehovah, the other was set apart for evil.
So Aaron made the sacrifice for himself and his household and then was to bring coals and incense into the Holy of Holies. The purpose of his bringing the coals and the incense behind the veil was so “the cloud of incense may cover the Mercy Seat…otherwise he will die.” And why should Aaron die without this smoke being present? There are two possible solutions that both hold truth. First, it is written that no one in his flesh can see God and live (Exodus 33:20). This is a basic standard of the God-human relationship – God’s holiness so far exceeds man’s sinfulness that when the two meet face to face, the sinner is struck dead before the perfectly pure God. The smoke was to shield the high priest from seeing the Shekinah glory of the Lord.
Second, the smoke that covered the Mercy Seat was to shield Aaron, the high priest, from God’s wrath. Functionally, the smoke prevented God from looking upon Aaron so that He looked upon the blood that was sprinkled onto the front of the Mercy Seat and the ground before it.
The goat that was chosen as a sin offering by the casting of lots was then slaughtered by Aaron the high priest and he was to do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull. This atonement was to cleanse the Holy of Holies and the rest of the tabernacle. The sinfulness of Israel was so potent that it had sunk into the tent of meeting itself, this mobile, physical symbol of the presence of God. Their evil had caused the place to become tainted and the whole of it was in need of cleansing.
So Aaron did this for the holy place behind the veil by himself, with no one else around at all. No unclean person was to be in the tabernacle while he made an atonement for it, as their presence would still defile the sanctuary. From there he went out of the Holy of Holies to the altar in the court where he cleansed it as well. This process was a symbolic removal of the contaminating sins of the people from that which God designed as pure.
The goat, which was made a sin offering, made a way for the people of Israel to be connected with God once again. This is very important. God’s chosen people had broken His law on a regular basis. They sinned every day, just like each one of us, and over the course of an entire year, these acts of rebellion accumulated significantly. The people of God were exceedingly sinful and had lost connection with God. They needed that propitiation, the covering that shielded them from God’s wrath, the mercy that removed their sins and brought them back into fellowship with the Lord.
Much happens at this point in the ceremony. The Israelites are brought back into participation with God through the offering of the first goat, but they still had to cut off their relationship with their sinfulness through the second goat, the live goat, la-azazel, that was set apart for evil. Any man who was ready for the task was chosen to take this goat, upon which Aaron laid the sins of the people, into the desert so far as to not let the animal find its way back. Its purpose was to die bearing the sins of Israel.
As mentioned earlier, there were two goats for this process because one goat could not possibly perform both functions: bleeding out an atonement while carrying the sins away from the people. However, the two goats were working for a solid, unified purpose. In fact, the Talmud, which was the Jewish instruction manual that accompanied the Old Testament, ordered that the goats used on the Day of Atonement were of the same color, apparent twins. They were accomplishing different tasks of the same work. The goal that was given them was the same, though the details varied.
Whenever Aaron went back into the tabernacle, he was instructed to take off his white linens, the ritual clothes, and put back on his high priest state dress, his normal clothing. The man who took the goat into the desert was to wash his clothes and bathe his body, as was the one who burned the hides of the bull and goat offerings, before coming back into the camp. This symbolized a complete disconnection with that which was sinful. Aaron, the man who handled the live goat, and the one who burned the carcasses of the offerings, all had interaction with bodies that took on sin. They had directly touched the embodiment of the violation of God’s law. They needed to be cleansed one more time, ceremoniously, in order to be pure.
These processes were, at the core, spiritual. The bull and the goats served as a physical representation of a spiritual reality. The sin of the people was transferred to the bodies of the animals and the blood that was offered served as a powerful sin-destroyer. Blood was required to defeat the sin. This can be found in the next chapter of Leviticus, where the Lord says,
Blood is necessary for the forgiveness of sins. Hebrews 9:22 says this, along with many other great truths about Leviticus 16. Before that passage is presented, an important, over-arching statement must be made. Jesus Christ fulfilled the Day of Atonement at Calvary. His death on the Cross accomplished all that was just studied once for all. Here are nine ways in which Christ brought an end to this yearly ceremony:
1. Jesus is the great High Priest, ultimately fulfilling the role of selected individuals to perform that duty on behalf of God’s people.
2. His earthly life was lived perfectly pure, fulfilling the obligation of a high priest to be bathed and wrapped in white linen.
3. Christ, as the second Person of the Trinity, is and always has been in perfect communion with God, fulfilling the need of a high priest to make an offering for himself so that he would be in right fellowship with the Father.
4. Jesus was set apart as an offering for the Lord when He died on the Cross, fulfilling the need of a goat for a sin offering.
5. He was also the one who took away the sins of the people when He was crucified outside of the city and was placed in the tomb, fulfilling the need for a live goat that took the people’s sins into the desert.
6. Christ’s death caused the veil in the temple to literally tear (Matthew 27:51), allowing all believers in Him to enter into God’s presence, the holiest place, fulfilling the temporary need for the curtain.
7. Jesus makes all believers into a royal priesthood upon faith, making a way for them to draw near to the throne of grace, fulfilling the need for incense to cover God’s presence.
8. His sacrifice allows His people to worship God freely, fulfilling the need for the people to make burnt offerings in response to His atonement.
9. Christ cleanses His people with His Spirit, allowing them to put off their old man and put on newness of life (Colossians 3:1-17), fulfilling the need to ceremoniously bathe and remove certain clothes.
You see, all of the sacrifices and offerings of the Old Testament pointed to the coming of Christ. They were mere shadows of the substance of Jesus Himself. They did not atone, but rather showed how the Messiah would atone. They served as a precursor to the ultimate sacrifice. One commentary states that the Day of Atonement
Hebrews 9:11-28 provides perfect closing words for this great teaching of Scripture and truth of God’s great plan.
But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?
For this reason He is the mediator of a new covenant, so that, since a death has taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were committed under the first covenant, those who have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance. For where a covenant is, there must of necessity be the death of the one who made it. For a covenant is valid only when men are dead, for it is never in force while the one who made it lives. Therefore even the first covenant was not inaugurated without blood. For when every commandment had been spoken by Moses to all the people according to the Law, he took the blood of the calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, saying, “This is the blood of the covenant which God commanded you.” And in the same way he sprinkled both the tabernacle and all the vessels of ministry with the blood. And according to the Law, one may almost say, all things are cleansed with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.
Therefore it was necessary for the copies of the things in the heavens to be cleansed with these, but the heavenly things themselves were better sacrifices than these. For Christ did not enter a holy place made with hands, a mere copy of the one true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us; nor was it that He would offer Himself often, as the high priest enters the holy place year by year with blood that is not his own. Otherwise, He would have needed to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now once at the consummation of the ages He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment, so Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him.
In communion we celebrate, remember, and proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes. We are to be overwhelmingly thankful for and committed to His sacrifice.
“In those days you were living apart from Christ. You were excluded from citizenship among the people of Israel, and you did not know the covenant promises God had made to them. You lived in this world without God and without hope. But now you have been united with Christ Jesus. Once you were far away from God, but now you have been brought near to Him through the blood of Christ.
“For Christ Himself has brought peace to us. He united Jews and Gentiles into one people when, in His own body on the Cross, He broke down the wall of hostility that separated us. He did this by ending the system of law with its commandments and regulations. He made peace between Jews and Gentiles by creating in Himself one new people from the two groups. Together as one body, Christ reconciled both groups to God by means of His death on the Cross, and our hostility toward each other was put to death.“He brought this good news of peace to you Gentiles who were far away from Him, and peace to the Jews who were near. Now all of us can come to the Father through the same Holy Spirit because of what Christ has done for us.” (Ephesians 2:12-18)