This morning we come to the climax of the book of Leviticus. Everything in the book is leading up to chapter 16. The sacrifices (chapters 1-5), the priests (chapters 6-10), the laws of cleanliness (chapters 11-15). All of these chapters anticipate chapter 16. This chapter contains the best of all sacrifices, performed by the priest above all priests, to make clean the entire nation of Israel (verse 30).
And after this chapter, Leviticus takes a turn. It turns from instructions concerning how to come near to God, with how to live in the presence of God. It will paint a picture of how the Jews were to live in holiness. And there will be much instruction there for us, as we seek lives of obedience and holiness and purity before the LORD.
But, it all hinges on chapter 16, which describes "The Day of Atonement." Now, this phrase, "Day of Atonement," doesn't appear here in this chapter. But, it does appear in chapter 23 (and verse 27), in the context of describing all of the feasts and the festivals that the Jews were to keep. The Sabbath, the Passover, the Feast of Firstfruits, the Feast of Weeks, the Feast of Trumpets, the Feast of Booths, and the Day of Atonement.
In the Hebrew, the "Day of Atonement" is "Yom Kippur." Yom is the Hebrew word for "Day." Kippur is the Hebrew word for "Atonement." That's a word that we don't use very much. It had a lot of nuances of meaning. It can mean, "cover" or "reconcile" or "redeem" or "save." But, the fundamental idea of this word is "reconciliation." Particularly here, it is a day of "reconciliation," -- a day when God and man are restored in relationship with one another. The sin that has caused division between the two has been dealt with. It has been removed. And now, God and man can be re-united.
You might think of atonement in this way: "at-one-ment." Making us "one" with God with no hostility between us. And this is what the Jews celebrated on the Day of Atonement. Through the sacrifices offered up by the high priest, the people were now reconciled to God!
And what the Jews knew in part, one day every year, we know in full. Because, Jesus has become our "at-one-ment." Jesus' death upon the cross dealt with our sin, once and for all. And God has reconciled us to Himself through the blood of Jesus. We simply need to believe in Him, and our sins are wiped away.
Oh, church family, never lose sight of the wonders of what we have in Jesus! The Jews came every year to the altar to seek forgiveness and reconciliation, but Jesus offered His one single sacrifice for sins. And it never needs to be repeated. And the writer to the Hebrews puts it so well, ...
And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.
Our life is different than the Jews. They were instructed to come before the LORD in this solemn assembly, once every year. Even today, Jews gather for this day. Verse 29 tells us that it was to be celebrated in the seventh month, and on the tenth day of the month, according to the Jewish calendar. This puts the celebration in late September or Early October on our calendar. This year it will fall on September 23.
It is the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. I suppose that is was much like our Christmas. That seems to me to be the highest holiday in our land. Stores that are open all year long are at least closed on Christmas Day. Only, the Day of Atonement wasn't a time for rejoicing and gift giving. On the contrary, it was a very solemn occasion. It was to be a time of fasting and prayer (verses 29, 31). It was a Sabbath for the people, meaning that no work was to be done on that day (verse 31). It was a day that was set apart to deal with God. You can see the tone being set in verse 1, ...
The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they drew near before the Lord and died,
These words come on the heels of chapter 10, the day when Aaron and his sons were ordained and set apart for ministry. Though God's instructions concerning the sacrifices were clear, Nadab and Abihu decided to do things their own way. Leviticus 10:1 says that they offered up "strange fire," before the LORD which God had not commanded them to offer up. As a result, "fire came out from before the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD" (Leviticus 10:2).
Such is the context of these words. They add to the weight of the sacrifices to be offered up on this day. And I'm sure that Aaron and his sons were filled with fear, lest they too face the same fate, in their disobedience. Verse 2, ...
and the Lord said to Moses, "Tell Aaron your brother not to come at any time into the Holy Place inside the veil, before the mercy seat that is on the ark, so that he may not die. For I will appear in the cloud over the mercy seat.
And I'm sure that Aaron and his sons would stay far away from the Holy Place. They had seen Nadab and Abihu get burned alive. They weren't going to go near that place.
Now, we are talking about the place behind the second veil, commonly called, the "Holy of Holies." It's where the Ark of the Covenant was. The flat surface above the ark was called, "the mercy seat." The priests would enter the outer tabernacle on a daily basis, every morning and every evening a priest would enter the outer tabernacle to burn the incense on the altar of incense, in front of the veil (Exodus 30:7-8). But into the Holy Place, behind the veil, they were prohibited to go. Except on the Day of Atonement, which chapter 16 details. Look at verse 3, ...
But in this way Aaron shall come into the Holy Place: with a bull from the herd for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. He shall put on the holy linen coat and shall have the linen undergarment on his body, and he shall tie the linen sash around his waist, and wear the linen turban; these are the holy garments. He shall bathe his body in water and then put them on. And he shall take from the congregation of the people of Israel two male goats for a sin offering, and one ram for a burnt offering.
When Aaron (or one of his sons) would enter into the Holy Place, they needed to be prepared. The high priest had to be ready with some animals (verse 3). He brought a bull and a ram. The bull for the sin offering and the ram for the burnt offering. The congregation brought to him two goats and a ram (verse 5). The goats for the sin offering and the ram for the burnt offering.
The high priest was to wash himself in water. He was to dress in simple clothes. Not the colorful robes of the high priest, but four simple layers of white linen. The clothes for this occasion were even more plain the that of the ordinary priest, who had a bit of blue and purple in their robes (Exodus 39:27-29). But, not the high priest on this day. He was to be decked out in all white.
Once prepared, we see in verse 6 what he is to do. Verses 6-10 provide the overview.
"Aaron shall offer the bull as a sin offering for himself and shall make atonement for himself and for his house. Then he shall take the two goats and set them before the Lord at the entrance of the tent of meeting. And Aaron shall cast lots over the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for Azazel. And Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the Lord and use it as a sin offering, but the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the Lord to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel.
There are three events that took place on that day. The first was a sacrifice that the high priest made for himself (11-14). The second was a sacrifice that he made for the people (15-19). The third was the release of the goat into the wilderness (20-22).
And each of these events teach us about Jesus. In fact, a good chunk of the book of Hebrews is an exposition of Leviticus 16. So, let's look at the first event, ...
"Aaron shall present the bull as a sin offering for himself, and shall make atonement for himself and for his house. He shall kill the bull as a sin offering for himself. And he shall take a censer full of coals of fire from the altar before the Lord, and two handfuls of sweet incense beaten small, and he shall bring it inside the veil and put the incense on the fire before the Lord, that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy seat that is over the testimony, so that he does not die. And he shall take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger on the front of the mercy seat on the east side, and in front of the mercy seat he shall sprinkle some of the blood with his finger seven times.
Can you picture it? Aaron takes the bull, as he often would do for the sin offering. And he kills it near the burnt altar. He places the fat, the kidneys, and the long lobe of the liver upon the fire, as he always did. (Leviticus 4:8-11) He takes some of the coals from the fire, along with some incense, and where normally he would stop at the curtain, he goes right into the Holy Place. And he covers the mercy seat with the smoke of the incense. And he takes his finger and dips it in the blood of the bull and sprinkles it on the mercy seat seven times.
One commentator said, "the purpose of the incense-smoke was to create a screen which would prevent the High Priest from gazing upon the Holy Presence."  The priest is careful to do everything exactly as the LORD has instructed. Because, if he does something wrong, he may die (verse 13). And this was no idle threat. In Exodus 28:35, God instructed Moses to have Aaron wear a bell, so that "when he goes into the Holy Place before the LORD," he may be heard, that he might not die.
Some say that the tradition was to tie a rope around his waist, so that if something did go wrong in the Holy Place, his body could be removed without anyone else dying. But, we have no historical evidence for this; it is only Jewish tradition, which may be folklore. Or it may be grounded in the truth. We don't know. But, the threat was real.
As the high priest entered the Holy Place, he was seeking forgiveness for his own sins, that he might be able to come back with the blood of the goat to offer up the sacrifice for the sins of the people. This shows that even the holiest of the land needed forgiveness. We are all sinners!
Remember the scene in Isaiah, chapter 6? Isaiah caught a glimpse of the glory of God in heaven. His robe filling the temple. The Seraphim flying around proclaiming His holiness. And what was Isaiah's response? He dropped like a dead man. He said, "Woe is me! For I am undone; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts" (Isaiah 6:5).
What an amazing thing! Isaiah spoke for God! Isaiah's words were God's words! Yet still, he saw his mouth as polluted and unclean. The key is this: to approach the LORD, we must be clean. Hasn't this been the lesson in Leviticus 11-15? On our own merits, we will fall. How different this was with Jesus, and how much better!
But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.
See, Jesus didn't have to bring the blood of goats and calves into the Holy Place. Instead, He brought His own blood into heaven itself to secure for us "eternal redemption" (verse 12). And the writer to the Hebrews says this: that all of the activity of priests, and the high priest on the day of atonement, was external. It cleansed the flesh, but never went deeper into the heart. But, the blood of Jesus cleanses deep within. Into the conscience.
This is fundamentally what is different about Old Covenant and New Covenant religion. The Old Covenant primarily dealt with external matters, eating, drinking, feasts, and festivals. But, the LORD promised in the New Covenant to bring a change of heart.
"Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, 'Know the Lord,' for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more."
Is your conscience clear before the Lord? The blood of Jesus cleanses us deep within! Are you serving the living God? (Heb. 9:14)
Let's move on. We have seen the Sacrifice for the Priest (verses 11-14) Let's move to the ...
"Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering that 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, sprinkling it over the mercy seat and in front of the mercy seat. Thus he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins. And so he shall do for the tent of meeting, which dwells with them in the midst of their uncleannesses. No one may be in the tent of meeting from the time he enters to make atonement in the Holy Place until he comes out and has made atonement for himself and for his house 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 some of the blood of the goat, and put it on the horns of the altar all around. And he shall sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times, and cleanse it and consecrate it from the uncleannesses of the people of Israel.
The procedure here is almost entirely identical to the first sacrifice. But, the weight is far more. The sacrifice here isn't simply for his sin. It is for the sin of the entire nation. The weight of the nation is upon his shoulders!
I can only think of the weight that comes upon an American president, who considers taking our nation to war! The lives of the husbands and fathers that he will put at risk. The deaths that will mount. The economic hardship that will follow. It's not to be taken lightly, and neither was entering the veil with the blood and incense.
It was at this moment that Gabriel appeared to Zechariah. We read in Luke 1, ...
Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, "Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.
The people were outside praying, while Zechariah was inside the veil with the incense (and the blood). Though the angel brought good news, He didn't believe. How many other priests entering the holy place didn't believe either? We don't know, but how easy is it to question that this one sacrifice will atone for the sins of the people?
And did you notice that the sacrifice that was offered was a small sacrifice? It was a goat! Wouldn't you think that a sacrifice sufficient for the sins of the nation would be a bit larger (or more numerous, perhaps)? At least the blood of the bull, rather than the goat? At the dedication of the temple, "King Solomon and all the congregation of Israel, who had assembled before him, were with him before the ark, sacrificing so many sheep and oxen that they could not be counted or numbered" (1 Kings 8:5).
But not here. Here it was a single goat. God said, "Bring the goat." Perhaps the significance here is the place of atonement, rather than the animal whose blood is brought into the place. Again, I take you to the book of Hebrews, ...
Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.
And how many there are who look at the one sacrifice of Jesus and say, "How can the blood of one man do so much?" Certainly, it's right to argue the merits of Christ and his humanity and his sinlessness. But, it's also right to argue the location of His offering.
The atonement of bulls and goats was earthly. The animals were slaughtered at the altar and the blood was brought into the Holy Place. But, the atonement of Jesus Christ was heavenly. He was slaughtered upon the cross. And His blood was brought into heaven. Remember the description of Jesus in Revelation 5? He is described as the Lamb standing, as though it had been slain. In other words, the death marks were still upon His body.
Jesus entered heaven itself on the merits of His blood. And if the blood of a goat was able to atone for the sins of a nation for a year, then certainly the blood of the Lamb of God is able to atone for the sins of the world! Oh, church family. Let's believe it! Let's proclaim it!
Sadly, there are many who fail to believe. Their doom is sure.
And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.
He came once; He's coming again. Are you eagerly awaiting Him? His sacrifice was sufficient. Believe it!
Let's move on. We have seen Sacrifice for the Priest (verses 11-14) and Sacrifice for the People (verses 15-19). Let's now look at ...
"And when he has made an end of atoning for the Holy Place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat. And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness.
This goat is clouded with mystery. Back in verse 8, this goat is called Azazel. This was one of the two goats. The first goat, chosen by lot, was sacrificed. This second goat was set free in the wilderness. It says in verse 10 that he was sent away to "Azazel."
The obvious question that comes to mind is this: What is Azazel? To that question, there have been many answers. The meaning of the name is uncertain. The Septuagint and Vulgate translations took it to be a combination of "goat" (ez) and drive away (azal). Some have taken it to mean "drive away, remove." Some have taken it to mean, "rough ground." Others have taken it as the name of a demon, as in the goat goes away to satisfy the devil.
What does it all mean? In many ways, it is very clear. The high priest (in verse 21) lays both of his hands upon the goat. Which, by the way, is unique. Normally, it's only one hand placed upon the head of the animal. But, here, it's both hands. And, included with the laying on of hands is the confession of sins. The high priest will "confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins" (verse 21).
Then, he shall "send it away into the wilderness" (verse 21). And the goat will "bear all their iniquities on itself" (verse 22). I think that this is a picture for Israel to see. On this day, their sins are taken away into the wilderness, never to be seen again.
What a picture! "As far as the east is from the west, So far does he remove our transgressions from us" (Psalm 103:12). "You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea" (Micah 7:19). And we read in Isaiah, "... in love you have delivered my life from the pit of destruction. For you have cast all my sins behind your back" (Isaiah 38:17). And, "I, I am he Who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, And I will not remember your sins" (Isaiah 43:25).
Amidst the mystery of the name, "Azazel," the picture is clear! God wants for us to see. He wants for us to know that when God deals with sin (as on the Day of Atonement), He really deals with them. He gets rid of them. He will never bring them up again!
As you have dealt with people in your life, you know how different this is than your experience. For, they say that they will forgive. But, when you least expect it, and when are down, somehow they find your sins again and bring them to remembrance. And use them against you.
But such is not the case with God. God will never do this. When He forgives a sin, it's gone. When the debt is paid, you don't have to pay it again. That's what Jesus has done for us at the cross.
Consider carefully the truth of Colossians 2:13-14, ...
And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.
Imagine your sins nailed to the cross. Where's the cross now? Nobody knows! And that's the point! Nobody knows where your sins are! They have been nailed to the long-lost hunk of wood, which is now decayed and gone!
Oh, church family. Believe in Jesus. Trust the picture. See your sin walking away into the wilderness.
Let's see my last two points....
This is what takes place in verses 23-28. Aaron will wash. The one leading the goat to the wilderness will wash. The one dealing with the dung will wash. I simply need to read the text.
"Then Aaron shall come into the tent of meeting and shall take off the linen garments that he put on when he went into the Holy Place and shall leave them there. And he shall bathe his body in water in a holy place and put on his garments and come out and offer his burnt offering and the burnt offering of the people and make atonement for himself and for the people. And the fat of the sin offering he shall burn on the altar. And he who lets the goat go to Azazel shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward he may come into the camp. And the bull for the sin offering and the goat for the sin offering, whose blood was brought in to make atonement in the Holy Place, shall be carried outside the camp. Their skin and their flesh and their dung shall be burned up with fire. And he who burns them shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward he may come into the camp.
I don't think that there is some great, spiritual meaning here. It's just the realities of what took place on that day. But, what is celebrated by the Jews today doesn't look like this at all. They have no sacrifices. They have no scapegoat. They have nothing left to clean up.
So, what's up with the Jewish people? Remember, in A. D. 70, the temple was destroyed by the Romans. The Jews have no place to sacrifice animals today. For God said that in Jerusalem, in the temple, on the mount is where they must sacrifice (Deuteronomy 12:13-14). But, the mount is controlled by the Muslims today.
The Jewish holy place now contains a Muslim mosque, called, "The Dome of the Rock." It's a beautiful building. The dome is plated with pure gold, If you are a Jew, it is not possible for you to go there. The police won't let you. The Muslims on the mount won't let you. Furthermore, as a Jew, you would not want to be defiled by entering a mosque.
So, where do you sacrifice? So, where's their hope, come September 23rd?
One of the strong emphases in this text has been upon the necessity of doing everything exactly as the LORD has said. "Lest you die." Lest you fail to receive forgiveness! So, how do the Jews deal with this today?
Enter Rabbi Johanan ben Zakai. He lived during the days when the temple was destroyed. He dealt with the issue of sacrifices and found a verse in the Bible that Jews hold onto until this day.
He argued from Hosea 6:6, "I desire mercy, and not sacrifice," that the Jews must now replace animal sacrifice with prayer. The suggestion convinced the Jewish leaders in those days. And Jews have remained committed to this every since.
Now, it's not that they don't want to do the sacrifices. There are plenty of Jews fighting and praying for control of the temple mount again. But in the meantime, all they can do is pray.
That's a problem, especially in light of the language of Leviticus 16. For sins to be forgiven the Jews, this must be the way it is done.
But, for we who believe in Jesus, we don't have such a problem. Because, Jesus has fulfilled the Day of Atonement. He has become the Lamb that takes away our sin. We no longer need the sacrifice to follow God.
For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
The good news is this -- as John the Baptist said, "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world." I love the "take away" language. Because it really displays what happens when we believe in Jesus. Our sins are taken away. They are removed. They are gone. They are irretrievable!
Finally, let's look at our last point, ...
And it is here that we will deal with one final point of application.
"And it shall be a statute to you forever that in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict yourselves and shall do no work, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you. For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you. You shall be clean before the Lord from all your sins. It is a Sabbath of solemn rest to you, and you shall afflict yourselves; it is a statute forever. And the priest who is anointed and consecrated as priest in his father's place shall make atonement, wearing the holy linen garments. He shall make atonement for the holy sanctuary, and he shall make atonement for the tent of meeting and for the altar, and he shall make atonement for the priests and for all the people of the assembly. And this shall be a statute forever for you, that atonement may be made for the people of Israel once in the year because of all their sins." And Aaron did as the Lord commanded Moses.
On that day, the Jews were told to "afflict" themselves. Other versions translated this, "humble yourselves." Note the reason. Verse 30 begins with "for," giving a reason why you should afflict and humble yourselves. Because atonement is made for you on that day. As followers of Christ, we can follow this.
Forgiveness of sins is a humbling thing. It is humbling to think of God almighty, breaking into history and dealing with our most pressing need: forgiveness. We didn't deserve it. We can't demand it. It's all of grace.
Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.
We plan on having a prayer service this Wednesday devoted to seeking the Lord in humility. In Leviticus 16:29, the Israelites were instructed on the Day of Atonement to, "afflict yourselves" (or "humble your souls" or "fast" or "deny yourselves"), because "on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you" (Leviticus 16:30).
Our service on Wednesday is simply an attempt to stir us up in seeking the Lord in fresh ways.
Psalm 119:25, 37, 40
My soul cleaves to the dust;
Revive me according to Your word.
Turn away my eyes from looking at vanity;
And revive me in Your ways.
Behold, I long for Your precepts;
Revive me through Your righteousness.
I also encourage you to consider fasting (per Leviticus 16:29) on that day. Fasting is a form of self-denial that helps to raise our awareness of our need for God in our lives. May the Lord use this service in the life of our church.
This sermon was delivered to Rock Valley Bible Church on
February 15, 2015 by Steve Brandon.
For more information see www.rvbc.cc.