Now that we have looked at the context of Leviticus 16 we are finally ready to delve into the passage itself. (I suggest reading it before reading the rest of this post.) There’s a lesson right off the bat in Leviticus 16:1-3. Moses starts by referring to the deaths of Aaron’s sons and then quotes God’s instructions for how Aaron is to enter the Most Holy Place on the Day of Atonement. In other words, Moses reminds Aaron of how NOT to enter God’s presence before telling him HOW to enter God’s presence. Thus the lesson for him – and for us! – is that we can only enter God’s presence on His terms, not ours.
The other sacrifices in Leviticus are made by individual worshipers on their own behalf. The person placed his hands on the head of the animal, confessed his sin over it, and then slaughtered it himself. What a graphic representation of the sobering truth that sin brings death! At the same time, what a picture of God’s incredible grace as the death of an innocent substitute brings life!
On the Day of Atonement, the high priest was the one who makes the sacrifices on behalf of himself and his family (Lev.16:6,11) and also the whole nation (Lev. 16:15,21-22; both are mentioned in Lev. 16:17, 24). Even more interesting is that Leviticus 16:16-18 says that atonement was made for the inner room (here called the holy place), the outer room (“tent of meeting”) and the altar where the sacrifices were burned, located in the courtyard. Somehow, the sins of the nation defiled God’s holy dwelling place, and periodically it needed to be cleansed.
Remember that the New Testament calls the church and individual Christians temples, or dwelling places of God. It’s relatively easy for me as an individualistic American to see how my sin defiles me, but harder to see how my sin affects my church family. Honestly, I prefer to believe that I’m the only one affected by my sin – and I think Satan is thrilled when I do! But I’ve come to the conclusion that even when my sins seem “private” they hurt my walk with God, and anything that hurts my walk with God hinders Him from using me in others’ lives. In light of that, the greatest ministry I can have to others is to quickly deal with sin and keep walking with God!
Which brings us back to atonement, the method God gives us to deal with our sin. But what exactly does atonement do? With any ancient language there are differences of opinion about some words, and there at least three opinions about the ancient Hebrew word “kipper,” which we translate as “atonement”:
- It comes from a root word meaning “to cover” so it covers our sins from God’s sight.
- It comes from a root word meaning “to wipe off” so it wipes away or removes our sin (the theological term is “expiation”).
- When Jewish scholars translated their scriptures from Hebrew into Greek before Christ, they used a word meaning “to appease or turn away God’s wrath” (the theological term is “propitiation”).
Words change their meaning over time, so the key to understanding them is the context in which they are used. Leviticus 16 repeatedly speaks of cleansing, and when we clean something (like our hands), we wash off the dirt. Then there’s the object lesson of the scapegoat (literally “goat of removal”): the sins of the nation are symbolically laid on the head of the goat, which is then sent away from the tabernacle and away from the camp out into the wilderness. Both images point to the meaning of wiping away sin. But the chapter also starts with a reference to the deaths of Aaron’s sons, which seems to be an obvious demonstration of God’s wrath. Taken together I believe the context shows that atonement includes both removing sin (“expiation”) and turning away God’s wrath (“propitiation”). 1
In light of all of this, read 1 John 1:5-2:2.
This is the message we have heard from Him and announce to you, that God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth; but if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us. My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world. (NASB)
Do you see the key words that John is using to remind his readers of the sacrificial system in Leviticus? Sin, confession, cleansing by blood, propitiation. Jesus is our atoning sacrifice who removes the sins not of just one nation, but of anyone in the entire world who comes to Him in faith. And any child of God who sins can restore fellowship with Him by openly confessing sin instead of hiding it (walking in light instead of darkness).
Here’s an exercise to make this come alive: write your sins on a piece of paper; when you’re done, write the words of 1 John 1:9 on top of what you have written and put it through a shredder to demonstrate that your sins are removed by Jesus.
(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.)
- For a more in-depth discussion on on this, read the section on propitiation vs. expiation in R. W. Yarbrough, “Atonement,” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, electronic ed., ed. T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2001). ↩