Why Study the Day of Atonement?

atonement-logo(This post is part of a series. See Entering the Most Holy Place: a Study on the Day of Atonement for an introduction and list of posts.)

The apostle Paul calls the Law of Moses “our tutor to lead us to Christ.” (Gal 3:24, NASB) Other translations call it our guardian or schoolmaster or say it “was put in charge.” The meaning of the Greek word includes all of those concepts and more:

 . . . a tutor i.e. a guardian and guide of boys. Among the Greeks and the Romans the name was applied to trustworthy slaves who were charged with the duty of supervising the life and morals of boys belonging to the better class. The boys were not allowed so much as to step out of the house without them before arriving at the age of manhood. [ref]James Strong, The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible : Showing Every Word of the Text of the Common English Version of the Canonical Books, and Every Occurrence of Each Word in Regular Order, electronic ed (Ontario: Woodside Bible Fellowship, 1996).[/ref]

Even though we are not subject to the Law of Moses, we can still let it “lead us to Christ” in the sense of looking to it to find insights about Jesus and what He did for us. The legislation for the annual Day of Atonement[ref]In his January 5 sermon, Dr. Marcus Warner defined atonement as “a sacrifice serving as a substitute.” You can listen on the sermon page at lifepointeindy.com,[/ref] sacrifice in Leviticus 16 is rich with such insights, as the New Testament Book of Hebrews shows.

Context is always incredibly important in understanding any passage, so it will help us to see where Leviticus falls in the Bible’s story line. Genesis tells the story of creation, our fall into sin, and God’s recreation of the world through Noah’s flood. Then the story zooms in on one man and his family as God makes a covenant with Abraham and his descendants, the Israelites. Exodus tells how God uses Moses to redeem His chosen people Israel from slavery in Egypt and to give them His Law at Mt. Sinai.

That order of events tells us something about the Law of Moses. Israel was not chosen or redeemed by obeying the Law; they were chosen in the covenant with Abraham and redeemed at the exodus from Egypt. The Law showed them how to live out their identity as a nation chosen and redeemed by God. God never intended His Law to be a means of salvation, but to show how saved people live.

The significance of the Day of Atonement within the Law of Moses can be seen in the literary placement of Leviticus 16. Leviticus is the center book of the Pentateuch (the five books of Moses). When you divide Leviticus by topics rather than chapters, chapter 16 is the literary center of the book. That makes the Day of Atonement the literary center of the Pentateuch[ref]J. E. Hartley, “Atonement, Day Of,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, ed. T. Desmond Alexander and David W. Baker (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2003), 55[/ref]. I believe this is not a coincidence, but that God ordained this placement to teach us that atonement is the heart of the Law of Moses.

The Law shows how saved people live, and atonement is the heart of the Law. What’s your response to this? Since Israel’s history often teaches timeless spiritual principles, how do these insights apply to us today? 

Denise DiSarro

View posts by Denise DiSarro
I am a staff member with Cru, a caring community passionate about connecting people to Jesus Christ. I work on a creative team in the Indianapolis area.


  1. Bruce BoydFebruary 20, 2014

    Interesting thoughts, Denise! I think in my own reading and consideration about the Law, for me, it reveals what attainment of holiness would truly look like for a human being, could we ever actually pull it off! Obviously, the Israelites failed miserably (as would any of us attempting to actually follow and obey all those regulations), and it very much sets the stage for why we desperately needed a Savior, and how God perfectly met the fulfillment of the Law’s requirements in the Person and sacrifice of Jesus. In that, I think your point about Atonement being the centerpiece is really a cool observation (especially the Leviticus placement point).

    As far as response to your statement, I agree that the Law sets the stage for atonement and how necessary it is, but I’m still processing your phrase that the Law reveals how “saved people live.” I think if we were sitting together, we would totally be on the same page, but it’s the literal interpretation of your phrase that’s honestly hanging me up.

    Personally, I know I could never pull off all the Law requires even AS a saved person – too many (and often bizarre requirements)! For me, reading, studying and grasping the magnitude of the Law, makes me fall to my knees in gratitude that, as a saved person, I’m clothed with HIS righteousness and not bound by the Law! As Paul says in Romans, the Law does a great job of revealing the sin nature in me, and Peter in Acts made the contention that they shouldn’t burden the new Gentile believers with a requirement (the Law) they as Jews were never able to bear.

    With that said, I would probably argue the Law is a picture of God’s standard with regard to what absolute holiness looks like (i.e., what it would take for a human to stand faultless in His presence), and that it definitely paints a picture of the need for, and price of atonement. I just struggle with the contention that the Law is an identifier of what my life as a saved individual should look like.

    Like I said, we’re probably on the same page and I’m just misinterpreting your statements, but those are my not-so-wonderfully-thought-through ramblings. :-)

  2. DeniseFebruary 21, 2014

    Thanks for your comment, Bruce! You bring up some very good points worth considering. I agree that the Law shows us our need for a Savior; as Romans 7:7 says, “I would not have come to know sin except through the Law.” And as you picked up, that’s why I think it’s so significant that atonement is the heart of the Law. The sacrificial system as a whole emphasizes the fact that people sin, and only the sacrifice of a substitute can provide forgiveness.

    Like you, I’m glad that we gentile believers don’t have to keep the whole Law of Moses, but on the other hand, I think the New Testament commands are even harder to keep. Take for example Matthew 5:21-22; I have never once disobeyed Moses’ command to not commit murder, but I have been angry at others and considered them good-for-nothing fools far more times than I can count. So when it comes to behavior, I completely agree that I fail to keep God’s laws (whether Old Testament or New) and will continue to do so until I reach heaven.

    But there is another thing I am trying to get at in this post, although maybe I didn’t articulate it very well, and that is the issue of identity. Something we talked about in our study group is that Israel did not become God’s people by obeying the Law of Moses – they became God’s people when He made a covenant with their ancestor Abraham. So the Law was given to a nation that was ALREADY chosen and redeemed. The only thing the Israelites knew at that point was how to be slaves; part of the reason God gave them the Law, I think, was to show them how to live as a free nation – in other words, how to live out their new identity.

    Similarly, Paul teaches in Ephesians 1-3 about who we are in Christ, then in chapters 4-6 teaches how to live in light of our new identity. In other words, how to BE who we already ARE. I will never be perfect this side of heaven, but as I grow spiritually, my behavior will increasingly reflect who I already am in Christ.

    That may sound like playing word games, but I find that I get into real trouble when I start thinking that because my identity in Christ is positional, it’s somehow less real than my experience. I assume that I WILL sin, and I fulfill my own prophecy! But when I trust that I truly am dead to sin but alive to God (Romans 6:1-14) and that the Holy Spirit will enable me to obey God (Romans 8:1-4), I am able to live a God-honoring life much more consistently. Plus I’m far quicker to bring my sins to the cross for cleansing instead of hiding them!

  3. Seth IrbyMarch 10, 2014

    Nice Intro Denise. I’ve always loved the old testament. I think it illustrates deep truths. I was just describing the holy of holies to my kids yesterday. Vivian really liked the idea of a special golden box to keep things in. :-)

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