Christ in all the Scriptures: Leviticus and the Day of Atonement

A “lame duck” Prime Minister had just lost a General Election. He was meeting with his successor in No. 10 Downing Street for an informal handover. Near the end of the orientation, he gave the incoming leader three numbered envelopes. He suggested they be opened, in order, on the anniversary of their meeting, or at times of national crisis. After the new Prime Minster had enjoyed his “honeymoon” year with the media and the public, the nation experienced something of an economic downturn. Curious, and beginning to feel lonely and isolated, he opened the first envelope. Inside was a card with two words: “Blame me.” So he did, criticizing the former Prime Minister for the countries woes. By the second anniversary, demonstrations and strikes had brought the country to a standstill. The Prime Minister eagerly opened the second envelope. Inside there were two words on the card: “Blame my administration.” So he did, blaming the unrest on the failed policies of the previous government now in opposition. About a year later, foreign policy blunders were leading to tensions in Europe and the Commonwealth and his popularity in the polls was plummeting. The Prime Minister reached for the third envelope desperate for a solution. Inside, the card read: “Prepare three envelopes.”  Someone once said, “He who smiles in a crisis has found someone to blame.

Some enterprising businessperson will sooner or later register the domain name “” with the motto “Mea Culpa.” Here’s what the homepage might offer.

“In today’s society finding a solution to a problem is much less important than finding someone to blame. If you find yourself being blamed by the media, customers or politicians, for something you did not do, or even if you did, that’s where we come in. For a negotiable fee, one of our trained staff can be seconded to your company on a six month contract retrospectively backdated to before the controversy blew up. You mount an investigation, they will accept full responsibility, you fire them and they take the heat. You get a positive media story, and the “scapegoat” walks away. It’s clean, it’s tidy and it’s containable. It’s the new “go-to-fall-guy” concept brought to you by

Let’s be honest. How many of us would be tempted to use that kind of service, if it existed? Especially, if they did house calls as well as business consulting? But seriously, is it not instinctive? When we come under the spotlight, we look for someone to blame, someone to pass the buck, someone to take the rap, a scapegoat? Where did this idea of the scapegoat come from? The term goes way, way back to Leviticus 16 when God introduced an annual festival called the Day of Atonement. Known as Yom Kippur (in September), it became the most solemn day in the Jewish calendar, a day of national mourning, of humiliation, of fasting, repentance and forgiveness. Yom Kippur is still observed today as a solemn Sabbath, but without the sacrifices because there is no Temple.

The word “Atonement” means “to cover or reconcile”. Sin alienates–it defiles and separates us from God. Atonement reconciles because it removes guilt and fear. This is how God delivers from evil. That is why the Day of Atonement has been called “The Good Friday of the Old Testament”. And here is the clue to what we can learn from Leviticus about the Lord Jesus Christ in our series “Christ in all the Scriptures”. Two weeks ago we began in Genesis and saw how in the story of Abraham and Isaac, the Lord provided a male lamb as a substitute for Isaac. We saw how this prefigures in a wonderful way the work of the Lord Jesus who willingly become the sacrifice in our place. Then last week in the Book of Exodus and the Passover, we saw how God passed over his people on the night of judgement because they hid behind the blood of the lamb sprinkled on their lintels and door posts. Thus the Passover meal became an annual reminder of how God liberated his people them slavery. Today we come to the third book of the Bible. We will see how the idea of sacrifice is further developed by the Day of Atonement. There is much in this book that points to the Lord Jesus, but this morning I want us to dwell on three that look forward to his work of atonement:

1. Jesus our High Priest

“The Lord said to Moses: “Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come whenever he chooses into the Most Holy Place behind the curtain in front of the atonement cover on the ark, or else he will die. For I will appear in the cloud over the atonement cover. This is how Aaron is to enter the Most Holy Place: He must first bring a young bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering… He is to put the incense on the fire before the Lord, and the smoke of the incense will conceal the atonement cover above the tablets of the covenant law, so that he will not die.” (Leviticus 16:2-3, 12-13)

Every year on that day the High Priest bore the heavy burden. He became for one day, the mediator between God and His people. Every year on this special day the responsibility was all his. He had do to it alone. No one else was allowed to be with him. He entered the Holy of Holies alone, wearing special clothes and carrying a bowl of blood. He offered a sacrifice to atone for his sin and of his people. So sacred and so terrifying was this holy place, the people tied little bells to the High Priests clothes so that they could hear if he stopped moving. And they tied a rope to his leg so that if he fell ill, or died while in the Holy of Holies, they could drag him out. In the New Testament, the writer to Hebrews draws on Aaron’s role and compares him with Jesus.  .

“But when Christ came as high priest … he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance.” (Hebrews 9:11-14)

Aaron is clearly seen as a type of Christ. However, the contrast between them could not be greater. We see:

  • Aaron was spotless in dress Christ was spotless in character
  • Aaron entered the earthly tabernacle, Christ entered the heavenly tabernacle.
  • Aaron was hidden behind the veil Christ ripped open the veil
  • Aaron offered for his own sins Christ offered only for our sin
  • Aaron entered once a year Christ entered once for all
  • Aaron offered for the whole nation Christ offered for the whole world.
  • Aaron offered many sacrifices Christ offered one sacrifice
  • Aaron offered blood of animals Christ offered His own blood

Jesus is indeed our great High Priest.

2. Jesus our Atoning Sacrifice

“Then Aaron is to take the two goats and present them before the LORD at the entrance to the tent of meeting. He is to cast lots for the two goats—one lot for the LORD and the other for the scapegoat. Aaron shall bring the goat whose lot falls to the LORD and sacrifice it for a sin offering. (Leviticus 16:7-9)

Aaron brought two goats to the entrance of the tent of meeting. There the fate of each goat was determined by lot. One would die, the other would live. The first goat was sacrificed to show how seriously God views sin, that sin leads to death.

Aaron was instructed, “He shall then slaughter the goat for the sin offering for the people and take its blood behind the curtain and do with it as he did with the bull’s blood: He shall sprinkle it on the atonement cover and in front of it. In this way he will make atonement for the Most Holy Place because of the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites, whatever their sins have been… No one is to be in the tent of meeting from the time Aaron goes in to make atonement in the Most Holy Place until he comes out, having made atonement for himself, his household and the whole community of Israel.” Leviticus 16:14-17)

The prophet Isaiah looked forward to the day when the Messiah would fulfil this role:

But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:5-6).

The Apostle John describes Jesus as the atonement sacrifice.

“He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2:2)

Jesus then is our High Priest. Jesus is our Atoning Sacrifice.

3. Jesus our Scapegoat

The first goat represented the atonement for sin. The second goat symbolised what had happened to their sin.

“But the goat chosen by lot as the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the LORD to be used for making atonement by sending it into the wilderness as a scapegoat… He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the wilderness … The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a remote place; and the man shall release it in the wilderness.” (Leviticus 16:10; 20-22)

The High Priest had to place His hands on the head of the scapegoat, and confess all the sin and rebellion of the people. Then the goat was led out into the wilderness. This symbolised the removal of the people’s sins as far away as possible. The Psalmist must have had the scapegoat in mind when he wrote, “as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” (Psalm 103:12). As the scapegoat grew smaller and smaller and finally disappeared into the wilderness, the people had assurance that their sins had been atoned for. The first animal represented the fact that God had forgiven their sins.

The second animal indicated that now God had forgotten their sins. Forgiven and forgotten, the two go together. If it is not forgotten, it is not forgiven. But in Jesus Christ, our sin is forgiven and forgotten. In Jesus Christ, sin has been banished to a barren and uninhabitable place where it belongs. The word translated wilderness is ‘Azazel’ in Hebrew. It means much more than simply the desert or wilderness. The desert was also thought to be the place where demons and evil powers lived. Mark Braverman is a Jewish American friend. We were speakers at two conferences in Amsterdam this week. When I told Mark the theme of my sermon today, he said that in contemporary Hebrew, the word Azazel is used for hell. So in Hebrew you might say “Go to Azazel”. I wonder if this image of the scapegoat is to be found in an event that occurred at the beginning of Jesus ministry, when the Spirit of God drove Jesus into the desert to be tested by Satan (Matthew 4:1-11). Or perhaps after his death when he went to Hades to preach to the departed? (1 Peter 3:19-20). It is surely no coincidence that it was in the desert that John the Baptist cried out when he saw Jesus ““Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). Did John see Jesus as the scapegoat? This is why Jesus death at Calvary is called the sacrifice of atonement – because he covers all our sin. The Book of Leviticus develops more emphatically than either Genesis or Exodus, the fact that the blood, represents life.

“For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.” (Leviticus 17:11)

That is why the blood of Christ is the foundation of everything.

  • The Meaning of the Blood, (Leviticus 17:11,14)
  • Redemption through the Blood, (1 Peter 1:18,19)
  • Forgiveness through the Blood, (Ephesians 1:7)
  • Justification through the Blood, (Romans 5:9)
  • Peace through the Blood, (Colossians 1:20)
  • Cleansing through the Blood, (1 John 1:7)
  • Freed from Sin through the Blood, (Revelation 1:5)
  • Sanctification through the Blood, (Hebrews 13:12)
  • Access through the Blood, (Hebrews 10:19)
  • Victory through the Blood, (Revelation 12:11)
  • Glory everlasting through the Blood, (Revelation 7:14,15)

Like the story of Abraham who almost sacrificed Isaac in Genesis, and the Passover lamb sacrificed in Exodus, the image of the two goats offered on the Day of Atonement in Leviticus, point to Jesus. To Jesus who would make further sacrifices unnecessary.

“Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.” (Hebrews 10:11-14)

Here then, in the Day of Atonement, we see a glorious picture pointing to the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. He is our Great High Priest who intercedes for us.

He is our Atonement Sacrifice who takes the punishment for our sin. He is the scapegoat who carries our sins far away. If we recognise Jesus as our High Priest, our mediator, our scapegoat, who died in our place, we may enter God’s presence without guilt or fear,

Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus,  by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body,  and since we have a great priest over the house of God,  let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.

Lets us respond by encouraging one another with this response in the following verses:

“Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.  And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10:19-25).

So, in future, when you are tempted to look for a scapegoat to cover up your failures or mistakes, remember you already have one. The one who willingly gave himself in your place.

Lets pray.

Sources used with thanks:

A.M. Hodgkin: Christ in all the Scriptures
Robert Reymond: Jesus Divine Messiah
Vaughan Roberts: God’s Big Picture
Steve Malone, “Three Pictures In Atonement”
Robert Leroe, “The Atonement”
Charles McCall, “The Tail of Two Goats”