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.  1

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 2 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 3. 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? 

Notes:

  1. 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).
  2. 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,
  3. 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
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