The Day of Atonement – Leviticus 16

Read the Passage: Leviticus 16

Preparation for Sacrifice (Lev. 16:1–10)

Several of the regular sacrifices—namely, the burnt, sin, and trespass offerings—dealt with atonement for sin (cf. Lev. 1:4). In general, though, these sacrifices focused on committed sins. In other words, these sacrifices were generally made when a person became aware of or convicted about a sin. The Day of Atonement was a regular event that applied to all people (cf. Lev. 16:33), regardless of their awareness of particular sins. The Day of Atonement, then, emphasized that mankind’s problem is not just that he commits actual sins (cf. Rom. 6:23); rather, it is that he has a sin nature (cf. Rom. 3:10–18), and that he is guilty of original sin (cf. Ps. 51:5; Rom. 5:12). In a clearer way than the regular offerings, the Day of Atonement highlighted the extent of man’s sin problem, the need for the promised Messiah, and the hope of God reconciling man to Himself.

Since Aaron’s oldest sons had irreverently entered the Tabernacle and had been killed, beginning at Lev. 16:2 God specifically instructed Aaron on how and when to enter God’s presence, which was to occur annually (cf. Lev. 16:34). In Lev. 16:3–4 God even gave instructions about the high priest’s attire, which curiously was far plainer than the regular priestly regalia as described in Exod. 28:1–43 and Lev. 8:6–19. In Lev. 16:6–14 the process by which the high priest would cleanse himself is described, which included offering a bull as a sin offering (cf. Lev. 16:6, 11–14). Interestingly, in this passage we also read that atonement was to be made for cleansing the Tabernacle itself (cf. Lev. 16:16–19). The cleansing of the Tabernacle was a reminder of the extent of mankind’s sin, the curse upon the entire created order, and the scope of the effects of gospel (cf. Acts 3:21; Col. 1:19–20).

Making of Atonement (Lev. 16:11–28)

The majority of this chapter is given over to describing the process by which the high priest would make atonement for himself (cf. Lev. 11:11–14) and for the people (cf. Lev. 16:15–22), as well as describing the events that followed the conclusion of the offerings on the Day of Atonement (cf. Lev. 16:23–28). The fact that the high priest had to offer a sacrifice for his own sins highlights the ultimate insufficiency of the sacrificial system to atone for sin. In commenting on the sacrificial system, Heb. 7:27–28 teaches that Jesus “does not need daily, as those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the people’s, for this He did once for all when He offered up Himself. For the law appoints as high priests men who have weakness, but the word of the oath, which came after the law, appoints the Son who has been perfected forever” (cf. Heb. 9:7–8).

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the atonement process involves the two goats that were part of the sin offering. Information about the offering of these goats is recorded at Lev. 16:5, 7–10, 15–22. In short, one of the goats was chosen to be killed as an offering before the Lord to make atonement for the sins of the people. The other goat, the so-called “scapegoat” (16:10), was to be released into the wilderness. By way of an example and an object lesson, the sacrificed goat pictured the substitutionary death of Christ—that is, the idea that sin necessitates death, while the scapegoat communicated the concepts of substitutionary sin-bearing and the permanent removal of sin. Furthermore, the fact that two goats were involved in the sacrifice, one being killed and the other living, roughly and dimly depicts the idea of Jesus being one Being with two natures, as well as His eventual resurrection.

Statement of Statute (Lev. 16:29–34)

In his concluding instructions about the Day of Atonement, Moses notes that the bodies of the sacrificed animals were to be burned “outside the camp” (Lev. 16:27). We later learn from the writer of Hebrews that this was symbolic or prophetic of Jesus being crucified outside the gates of Jerusalem (cf. Heb. 13:10–16). Following these details, Moses instructs Israel that the Day of Atonement “shall be a statue forever for you . . . . It is a statue forever . . . . This shall be an everlasting statue for you.” (Lev. 16:29, 31, 34). In referring to the eternal nature of the events that transpired on the Day of Atonement, Moses cannot be referring to celebrating the actual event in perpetuity, for “the blood of bulls and goats could [never] take away sins” (Heb. 10:4). It seems, then, that Moses was referring to the event anticipated by the Day of Atonement—that is, Jesus’ atonement.

Application Questions:

  1. Given that five different types of regular offerings/sacrifices were described in Lev. 1–7, why was a separate annual Day of Atonement necessary?
  2. Why does Lev. 16:16–19 specify that atonement had to be made for the Holy Place and the Tabernacle itself (cf. Acts 3:21; Eph. 1:10; Col. 1:19–20)?
  3. In what ways do the requirements for observing the Day of Atonement show the insufficiency of sacrificial system (cf. Heb. 10:1–4)?
  4. On the Day of Atonement, in what ways did both the goat which was offered as a sacrifice, as well as the scapegoat, depict Christ (cf. Isa. 52:13–53:12)?
  5. Is there anything inherently sacred about pastors, deacons, or others in vocational Christian ministry (cf. 1 Tim. 3:1–16; Titus 1:5–9; 1 Pet. 2:9)?