Walking With a Holy God

Entering the Most Holy PlaceNow 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”:

  1. It comes from a root word meaning “to cover” so it covers our sins from God’s sight.
  2. It comes from a root word meaning “to wipe off” so it wipes away or removes our sin (the theological term is “expiation”).
  3. 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.)


  1. 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).

“Be Holy, For I Am Holy”

Entering the Most Holy Place(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.)

(By the way, I’ve quoted all the verses in NASB, but the popups are set to display NIV so you can compare the two translations.)

I want to warn you from the outset: this is going to sound like bad news. But hang in there with me, because the bad news tells us why we need the good news, and seeing how horrible the bad news is will enable us to see just how incredibly amazing the good news is. Ready? Here we go…

Who is this God who manifested His presence in the midst of the Israelite camp, and who “tabernacled” among us in the person of Jesus, and who lives in our church and our very bodies? How should His character affect ours?

Leviticus has a definitive answer. According to Leviticus 11:44-45; 19:2; and 20:26, God’s character is holy. In these verses He repeatedly says to His people, “Be holy, for I am holy.” Peter applies this to us as Christians:

As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because it is written, “YOU SHALL BE HOLY, FOR I AM HOLY.” (1 Peter 1:14–16)

We are to be holy because our God is holy.

Holy. Sacred. Set apart. Pure.

And more than a little frightening.

When our holy God manifested His presence to Israel at Mount Sinai, He warned Moses to keep the people away from the mountain, lest He “break out against them” (Exodus 19:20–25). In fact, the instructions for the Day of Atonement were given in the context of just such a terrifying judgment.

“For the LORD your God is a consuming fire…” (Deuteronomy 4:24) 1

“Now the LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they had approached the presence of the LORD and died.” (Leviticus 16:1) This refers to a story in Leviticus 10:1-7, but we will focus on the first section:

Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took their respective firepans, and after putting fire in them, placed incense on it and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them. And fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD. Then Moses said to Aaron, “It is what the LORD spoke, saying, ‘By those who come near Me I will be treated as holy, And before all the people I will be honored.’ ” So Aaron, therefore, kept silent. (Leviticus 10:1-3)

Like I said before, frightening.

The instructions God gave Moses on the construction and use of the Tabernacle’s incense altar sheds light on the punishment of Nadab and Abihu. Interestingly, it is also first mention of the Day of Atonement in scripture.

“You shall not offer any strange incense on this altar, or burnt offering or meal offering; and you shall not pour out a drink offering on it. Aaron shall make atonement on its horns once a year; he shall make atonement on it with the blood of the sin offering of atonement once a year throughout your generations. It is most holy to the LORD.” (Exodus 30:9–10)

When Nadab and Abihu did something “which He had not commanded them” (Leviticus 10:1), it was not a simple mistake made out of ignorance.

The instructions had been clear. The altar of incense was declared by God to be “most holy.” When Nadab and Abihu offered strange or unauthorized fire on it, they were acting in clear defiance of God. Theirs was an act of blatant rebellion, an inexcusable profaning of the Holy Place. They committed a sin of arrogance, an act of treason against God: They profaned a most holy place. (R. C. Sproul, The Holiness of God, 2nd ed (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1998), 102-103.)

Whether they acted out of premeditation or out of carelessness, it was still the sin of arrogance. They did not take God’s holiness seriously enough, and they died because of it.

This rather frightening incident at the beginning of the Mosaic covenant reminds me of a similar one at the beginning of the new covenant. In Acts 5, Ananias and his wife Sapphira lied about money they were giving to the church, presumably to make themselves look better, and God struck them both dead. God did not change from a God of judgment in the Old Testament to a God of grace in the New Testament; He is one and the same throughout the Bible. He is holy, and He will be treated as holy.

This is the God who makes His dwelling within us. No wonder He says “Be holy, for I am holy.”

Now for the good news (finally!)

Remember that what God did for Israel as a nation often pictures what He does spiritually for those who trust Christ for salvation. Let’s look again at those verses where God says, “Be holy, for I am holy.”

  • Leviticus 11:44-45. We can be holy because this holy God brought us out of the Egypt of slavery to sin. And we can be holy because this holy God is our God.
  • Leviticus 20:26. We can be holy because this holy God sets us apart to be His.
  • Look at an additional verse – Leviticus 20:7-8. We can be holy because this holy God makes us holy.

God has always been a God of grace. You will see His grace everywhere in the Old Testament if you take the time to look for it. It is no coincidence that in the book where God repeatedly commands Israel to be holy, He also provides the sacrificial system to cleanse them from sin. And it is no coincidence that the instructions for the Day of Atonement follow the judgment of Nadab and Abihu. As Jesus said, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick.” (Mark 2:17) We will never truly seek or appreciate grace until we first see our sin in the light of God’s frightening holiness.

What is your honest reaction to all of this? Does it change how you feel about God and about yourself? How can knowing these truths make a practical difference in the way you live?


  1. My thinking in the following section is influenced by insights from chapter 6 in R. C. Sproul, The Holiness of God, 2nd ed (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1998).
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