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Yom Kippur: The Day of Atonement

Series: Leviticus

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on May 11, 2005

Leviticus 16:1-34

Wednesday Evening
May 11, 2005
Leviticus 16:1-34
“Yom Kippur: The Day of Atonement”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

This is an extraordinarily rich passage. It's a passage which deals with the Day of Atonement and the ritual that was required of the high priest before he engaged in the other rituals that were attendant upon the Day of Atonement. This was the yearly, the annual feast at which Israel gathered; and, despite all of these other sacrifices that we've learned about (and rituals that we've learned about) in Leviticus 1-15, this all-encompassing sin offering was offered up not only for the high priest, not only for the other priests of his household, but for the whole of Israel, because to draw near to a holy God required the covering of sin. Because Israel, though God's chosen Israel, though the beneficiaries of God's mercy–Israel–are the objects of God's affection and love, Israel was made up of sinners; and a holy God cannot commune with sin, and so, that sin has to be dealt with. And so this all-encompassing yearly ritual dealt with that ongoing reality of sin.

Now, to do this passage justice we would at least have to preach through the whole of Hebrews 9 and 10. The fact of the matter is much of the Book of Hebrews is a commentary on the Book of Leviticus. We've said this before, several times. And Hebrews 9 and 10, especially–though we could point to other passages like Hebrews 6 and Hebrews 7, and other places in the Book of Hebrews–but Hebrews 9 and 10 specifically provide us much light on Leviticus 16 as they explain the superiority of the atoning work of our great high priest, the Lord Jesus Christ, in fulfillment of these Old Testament types and shadows...these former representations, these foreshadowings of the real, and final, and true sacrifice. But we don't have time to preach all the way through Hebrews 9 and 10 tonight, although I did print out four sermons on those topics to refresh my memory this afternoon.

But I want to zero in on two or three things that we learn from this passage: first, from the Old Testament perspective; and then, from the New Testament perspective; and then, draw four implications for us as Christians today.

Before we read this passage and before we expound it, I want to outline the passage for you before we even go to the Lord in prayer, so that you have in mind the flow of this passage. It seems to me that you could outline Leviticus 16 in five parts. There is the introduction–you’ll find that introduction in verses 1 and 2; there is a specification of the animals and the clothing that the priests must use in the ritual–you’ll see that in verses 3-5. So, there's the introduction in 1 and 2; there's the specification of the animals and the clothing that were used in the ritual in verses 3 to 5.

Then, in verses 6-10, you have an outline...a summary...of the sacrifices and the ceremonies that are going to be a part of this Day of Atonement.

Then, the fourth part of the passage you’ll find in verses 11-28. This section of Leviticus 16 gives you a detailed description of the ceremonial requirements that are described and outlined in verses 6-10; and, in fact, if you look at Leviticus 16:11-28, you’ll find three parts within that section. In verses 11-19, you’ll have a description of the blood-sprinkling atonement ritual that was required as part of the Day of Atonement worship.

Then, in verses 20-22, you’ll see a description of the law of the scapegoat, and what was to be done in the case of this goat on whom a lot fell.

Then, in verses 23-28, you have this description of the cleansing rituals that were to be followed by the priests and by the one who led the scapegoat into the wilderness.

And so those are the three parts of that fourth section of the chapter.

And finally, in verses 29-34, you have a description of this perpetual statute which is to be a permanent duty of the children of Israel, year after year, after year. Those are the five parts of the chapter, and we’ll pause as we read through this, again, fairly long chapter, to break it up so that you have clearly in your minds the units that we're reading. And then, we’ll do our best to expound this great word of the Lord.

Before we do, let's look to God in prayer and ask for His help.

Lord God, You have helped us. You have helped us much as we have covered unfamiliar terrain. So many of us who have benefited from the study of the Book of Hebrews have not had so close a study of the Book of Leviticus, and yet, when we read Leviticus ourselves and study it, the richness of Hebrews becomes even richer to us. And so we pray that our study of Leviticus 16 tonight would only enhance our appreciation of the New Testament exposition of this great book; and above all, we pray that our study of Leviticus 16 would exalt our Redeemer, our atoning mediator, in our hearts and in our lives. We ask these things in Jesus' name. Amen.

Hear God's word from Leviticus 16.

[First, the introduction–and in this section we see a warning against Aaron about the danger of approaching God inappropriately, and you’ll see what the warning harkens back to as we begin to hear God's word.]

“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. And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Tell your brother Aaron hat he shall not enter at any time into the holy place inside the veil, before the mercy seat which is on the ark, lest he die; for I will appear in the cloud over the mercy seat.’”

[And so, verses 1 and 2, the introduction, remind us of how careful even the high priest must be in approaching the Lord. And we're reminded of how Nadab and Abihu died. We go on to verse 3...]

“ ‘Aaron shall enter the holy place with this: with a bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. He shall put on the holy linen tunic, and the linen undergarments shall be next to his body, and he shall be girded with the linen sash, and attired with the linen turban (these are holy garments). Then he shall bathe his body in water and put them on. And he shall take from the congregation of the sons of Israel two male goats for a sin offering and one ram for a burnt offering.’”

[So there's the second part of the chapter, and there we're told what is necessary in order for the high priest to enter into the holy of holies. He has to wear these clothes, and he has to bring these particular animals for sacrifice. In other words, the animals and the priestly dress required in the Day of Atonement ritual are specified here. There's the second part of the chapter. Now we come to the third part, in verse 6.]

“ ‘Then Aaron shall offer the bull for the sin offering which is for himself, that he may make atonement for himself and for his household. He shall take the two goats and present them before the Lord at the doorway of the tent of meeting. And Aaron shall cast lots for the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for the scapegoat. Then Aaron shall offer the goat on which the lot for the Lord fell, and make it a sin offering. But the goat on which the lot for the scapegoat fell, shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make atonement upon it, to send it into the wilderness as the scapegoat.’ ”

[Well, there's the third part of the chapter. It describes the sin offering and the scapegoat, and what is necessary to do with these sacrifices and these rituals in order that sin can be dealt with...in order that the people of God can worship God. The sacrifices and ceremonies required are at least outlined here in verses 6-10. There's the third part of the chapter. Now we come to verse 11. Here's the fourth part of the chapter.]

“ ‘Then Aaron shall offer the bull of the sin offering which is for himself, and make atonement for himself and for his household, and he shall slaughter the bull of the sin offering which is for himself. And he shall take a firepan full of coals of fire from upon the altar before the Lord, and two handfuls of finely ground sweet incense, and bring it inside the veil. And he shall put the incense on the fire before the Lord, that the cloud of incense may cover the mercy seat that is on the ark of the testimony, lest he die. And moreover, he shall take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger on the mercy seat on the east side, and also in front of the mercy seat he shall sprinkle some of the blood with his finger seven times.
“ ‘Then he shall slaughter the goat of the sin offering which is for the people, and bring its blood inside the veil, and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, and sprinkle it on the mercy seat and in front of the mercy seat, and he shall make atonement for the holy place, because of the impurities of the sons of Israel, and because of their transgressions, in regard to all their sins; and thus he shall do for the tent of meeting which abides with them in the midst of their impurities. When he goes in to make atonement in the holy place, no one shall be in the tent of meeting until he comes out, that he may make atonement for himself and for his household and for all the assembly of Israel. Then he shall go out to the altar that is before the Lord and make atonement for it, and shall take some of the blood of the bull and of the blood of the goat, and put it on the horns of the altar on all sides. And with his finger he shall sprinkle some of the blood on it seven times, and cleanse it, and from the impurities of the sons of Israel consecrate it.’”

[So here in verses 11-19 you have the first part of the fourth section of Leviticus 16. And in this blood-sprinkling ritual, isn't it interesting that the focus is on atoning for the impurities of the priests of the priesthood and of Israel, which affect the tabernacle. They make impure the tabernacle, which is going to be the place where God manifests His presence. Bear that in mind. That's going to factor into our application tonight. Then, in verses 20-22, we come to the second part of the fourth section of Leviticus 16. It speaks of the scapegoat.]

“ ‘When he finishes atoning for the holy place, and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall offer the live goat. Then Aaron shall lay both of his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the sons of Israel, and all their transgressions in regard to all their sins; and he shall lay them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who stands in readiness. And the goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a solitary land; and he shall release the goat in the wilderness.’ ”

[So, there we see the law of the scapegoat. Now, the third section of the fourth part of Leviticus 16 begins in verse 23. It deals with the cleansing rituals.]

“ ‘Then Aaron shall come into the tent of meeting, and take off the linen garments which he put on when he went into the holy place, and shall leave them there. And he shall bathe his body with water in a holy place and put on his clothes, and come forth and offer his burnt offering and the burnt offering of the people, and make atonement for himself and for the people. Then he shall offer up in smoke the fat of the sin offering on the altar. And the one who released the goat as the scapegoat shall wash his clothes and bathe his body with water; then afterward he shall come into the camp. But the bull of the sin offering and the goat of the sin offering, whose blood was brought in to make atonement in the holy place, shall be taken outside the camp, and they shall burn their hides, their flesh, and their refuse in the fire. Then the one who burns them shall wash his clothes and bathe his body with water, then afterward he shall come into the camp.’ ”

[And so, the law of cleansing is described there. Then we come in verse 29 to the final, the fifth part, the fifth section of this chapter.]

“ ‘And this shall be a permanent statue for you: in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall humble your souls, and not to any work, whether the native, or the alien who sojourns among you; for it is on this day that atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you; you shall be clean from all your sins before the Lord. It is to be a Sabbath of solemn rest for you, that you may humble your souls; it is a permanent statute. So the priest who is anointed and ordained to serve as priest in his father's place shall make atonement; he shall thus put on the linen garments, the holy garments, and make atonement for the holy sanctuary; and he shall make atonement for the tent of meeting and for the altar. He shall also make atonement for the priests and for all the people of the assembly. Now you shall have this as a permanent statute, to make atonement for the sons of Israel for all their sins once every year.’ And just as the Lord had commanded Moses, so he did.”

Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.

This is an extraordinarily rich passage. Perhaps you sensed that, just from reading through it...all the allusions that there are in this passage, not only to the Book of Hebrews, but to other parts of Scripture. When we read Leviticus 16, don't we hear echoes of Isaiah 53? Did you hear the echoes of when you hear that scapegoat described: “...on whose head is laid the sins of Israel...” don't you hear Isaiah saying that “the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all”? It's extraordinarily rich, isn't it? When you hear the Lord speak about this cloud of incense which is going to shroud the mercy seat during the ritual of the atonement, so that Aaron doesn't die, don't you see the shroud of darkness which God causes to fall upon the world during the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ, lest He strike out at us and destroy us all?

Now, there are so many rich connections in this passage with Old Testament and New, but tonight I want to restrict myself to two or three things that I'd like to draw your attention to, and the first thing is this:

I. An emphasis on cleansing the priests

In this whole great passage, there is an emphasis on the cleansing of the impurity of the priests of the priesthood, and of Israel, as it makes impure the tabernacle. The tabernacle is the place where God comes to meet with His people, and through this ritual the sins of the high priest, of the whole of the priesthood, and of all Israel are dealt with, so that Israel can come into communion with God and worship Him.

And it is dealt with through blood and through riddance. In two ways, those sins are dealt with: through a ritual of blood and ritual of riddance. The ritual of blood is that atoning ritual, that propitiating ritual, that expiating ritual, the sprinkling of the blood of the sacrificed animals. In that atoning ritual, blood is offered as payment for sin, as covering for sin, in order to turn away the wrath of God, in order to quit the wrath of God, in order to deflect the wrath of God, the just wrath of God on Israel for her sins. This blood offering is offered to indicate that there is no forgiveness of sins without the shedding of blood. And so, sin is dealt with through bloodshed, and these rituals point to this reality.

But the sin is also dealt with through the ritual of riddance, and of course that's seen especially in verses 20-22 in the manifestation of the scapegoat...this scapegoat, upon whom the priest's hand lays all the sins, all the iniquities of Israel, and then sends a man, a chosen man, out into the wilderness.

What's being pictured there? Two things are being pictured there. One thing is the picture of the removal of Israel's sin. Israel's sin is being literally carried out into the wilderness, out of their sight. We heard the language in Stephen's prayer tonight of the Lord removing our sin from us as far as the east is from the west. Well, this is a picture of the removal of sin out of the middle of Israel's camp and out into the wilderness.

But it is also a picture, isn't it, of what Israel's sin deserved. Israel's sin deserved their being cut off from God, sent out into the wilderness, cut off from God's people. And so this whole passage shows the cleansing of Israel and the cleansing of the tabernacle through blood and through riddance.

But of course, ultimately as a Christian, you can't read this passage without contemplating how it is fulfilled in Jesus Christ, who in His own body on the tree bore our sins. Paul speaks of this in Romans 3:25, doesn't he? He was a propitiatory sacrifice for us. Through blood sacrifice, Jesus Christ fulfilled the pictures here of Leviticus 16. The Book of Hebrews, in chapters 9 and 10 reminds us that the blood of bulls and goats cannot forgive sin, only the blood of Jesus Christ.

He tells us in Hebrews 9 that Jesus’ death was in order to forgive sins that were committed under the first covenant, under the Mosaic covenant. What does that mean? It means that these blood sacrifices did not forgive sin! They pointed forward to the real sacrifice that forgave sin: Jesus’ death on the cross on our behalf.

And doesn't that remind us, my friends, that if we look anywhere else other than to Jesus and to His cross for the forgiveness of sins, we cannot find forgiveness there? Only at the cross, only in Jesus can we find forgiveness of sins. If even the Old Testament ritual, the ceremonial way that God dealt with the sins of the children of Israel...if it was not effective for the forgiveness of sins, but pointed forward to the one thing that was effective for the forgiveness of sins, can we find forgiveness of sins if we look anywhere else?

And so, Jesus, in His own death on the cross, fulfills this glorious picture, this glorious type, this glorious foreshadowing, this glorious symbol in Leviticus 16, but His death also fulfills that picture of the scapegoat, that ritual of riddance. You know, we spoke of the language of Isaiah: “The Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” But does not Paul speak of that in II Corinthians 5:21? “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” There you see Paul speaking of the Lord's laying on Him our iniquities, that He might carry them away. And at the cross, don't we see in Jesus’ cry, “My God! My God! Why have You forsaken Me?” the language of the scapegoat who has been taken into the wilderness and forsaken.

You know, the rabbis say that that man who was appointed here in Leviticus 16 to take that scapegoat into the wilderness was to journey twelve miles into the wilderness, and then was to remain until that scapegoat was completely out of his sight; and then, he would turn, and he would come back to the people of God. And here, in the Gospel of Matthew, as Matthew talks about Jesus’ lifting up that cry: “My God! My God! Why have You forsaken Me?” you see Jesus utterly forsaken. He's the sin bearer of His people, removing His people's sin–the due penalty of it–and expressing in that abandonment and in that riddance what we ought to have experienced. And so we see cleansing through blood and riddance here in Leviticus 16 being fulfilled in Jesus’ atonement, Jesus’ abandonment, Jesus’ bloodshed, and Jesus’ dereliction.

II. Sacrifices were offered to provide a pure sanctuary.

Well, there's a second thing we see here, as well, and I want to draw your attention to it. And that's this: Isn't it interesting (and you see this especially in verses 16ff–“He shall make atonement for the holy place because of the impurities of the sons of Israel. In other words, the reason why these sacrifices were appointed on the Day of Atonement was for the goal of having a pure sanctuary. The reason why these sacrifices were offered was because the sin of the high priest, the sin of the priesthood, the sin of the people of God made the sanctuary impure, which was the place where God had appointed to meet with them. The goal was to meet with God, but their sin made the place that God had appointed them to meet with Him impure, and therefore it had to be dealt with. Does that not point to the complete, the huge demands of holiness that God makes for meeting with Him? But at any rate, the goal is in having a pure sanctuary–the place where God manifests His presence.

But think of the New Testament fulfillment of that, my friends. What is God's sanctuary in the New Testament? You are! The people of God are...the gathered people of God are....what does Jesus say? “Where two or more of you are gathered in My name, there I am in your midst.” The Shekinah glory comes down!

And so, this passage...doesn't it beautifully point to the fact that Jesus purchases forgiveness and cleansing for His people so that we may be a sanctuary, and so that the fulfillment of all the promises of God that “[He] will be our God, and we will be His people, and the tabernacle of God will be among men, and He will dwell in our midst” will be realized. Isn't that what's being pictured for us when the veil is rent from top to bottom in the temple, that now a close communion has been brought about by this cleansing work, this forgiving work of Jesus Christ in the midst of His people?

You know, it's striking, isn't it? These rituals...these Old Testament rituals are gracious. They’re filled with grace. They’re designed to help bring God's people into communion with Him.

But think of it, my friends: If we had all been members of First Presbyterian in the wilderness, we would never have seen the mercy seat on the Day of Atonement. We would have never laid eyes on it! We would never have laid eyes on the lampstand on the Day of Atonement. We would never have laid eyes on what the high priest was doing in there for us...we’d never have seen it! Because even these provisions of grace in the old covenant remind us of our separation from God, but we have seen in God's word our Mediator, and we have seen the mercy seat in His word, and we have trusted in Him, and He has brought us within the veil, so that these Old Testament rituals that were designed to produce the goal of having a pure sanctuary, so that the people of God can meet with Him...these things are only realized in the finished work of Jesus Christ, who enables us to draw near.

And we see, as well...isn't it interesting? In verse 29ff., the emphasis on “this is a permanent ritual”–this is always to be done.

Well, I want to ask you a question: Why don't we do this on Yom Kippur at First Pres? Why don't we do this on the tenth of Tishri every year? Our Jewish friends still observe it; why don't we do it? I mean, God says it's a permanent ordinance.... Because Hebrews 9 and 10 tell us that Jesus’ work finished these shadows. Jesus’ work accomplished all the reality that these shadows pointed to. The finality and efficacy of Jesus’ sacrifice made these rituals that were once called “permanent” obsolete, unneeded, unnecessary, never to be returned to again. That is how complete, and final, and efficacious Jesus’ atoning work is.

Now, in Hebrews 9:19-25, the author of Hebrews draws four implications for you of that reality...for you, for that reality. Now let me just run over them.

If those things are true, if Jesus’ sacrifice is final and efficacious, and has fulfilled and replaced and made obsolete all of these Old Testament types and shadows, what are you supposed to do?

Hebrews 10:22 — You’re supposed to draw near with assurance. You’re supposed to draw near with assurance, because your sins have not been forgiven through the ritual cleansing of bulls and goats, but through the shed blood of the very Son of God.

You see the point of the author of Hebrews: If He will go that far to be faithful with His promise, how can you possibly doubt Him? Draw near with boldness into the throne room of God.

Secondly (verse 23): Hold fast without wavering. If the Lord has done this for you, if He has shed the blood of His own Son, persevere! Hold fast without wavering! Don't turn back, keep on going!

Thirdly, look at verse 24. Hebrews tells us to encourage one another to love and obedience. Encourage one another...stimulate one another to love and good deeds. That's what we're to do. If Jesus has given this full and final sacrifice on our behalf, what should we do? Encourage one another to love, encourage one another to be like Him. We sang about that in that wonderful hymn tonight that we opened our service with.

In verse 25, what are we supposed to do in response to this? Do not forsake the assembling of yourselves together. Isn't that interesting? Don't stop going to church! That's the application that the author of Hebrews gives: Because of the full and final sacrifice of Jesus Christ, we're not to “forsake the assembling of ourselves together, as is the habit of some.”

The author of Hebrews says the final, complete, efficacious sacrifice of Jesus Christ has ushered us within the veil; therefore, draw near to God, hold fast, encourage one another to love and good deeds, and don't forsake the assembling of yourselves together. Those are the practical implications and ramifications of this great truth of the atonement. We've only scratched the surface, but we've begun to see some of the connections in this glorious chapter in this glorious book. Let's pray.

Our Lord and our God, we thank You for Your word, and we ask now that You would nourish us by Your truth, and that You would make us indeed to love one another; to encourage one another in good deeds; and to always be faithful to one another in assembling on Your Lord's Day to give You praise. We ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.

Stand for God's blessing.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God the Father and our Lord, Jesus the Messiah. Amen.

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This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.

Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.