Leviticus 16, Yom Kippur an Appointment for Atonement

The Bible doesn’t portray the death of Jesus as natural or accidental but orchestrated. Jesus speaks as if He has an appointment with crucifixion.

As he works His way toward Jerusalem, Jesus speaks of his suffering with certainty. His death is not to inspire others as a martyr, but His death will give new life to others as a sacrifice. His is no ordinary death. The death of Jesus was different. 

But have you ever wondered why did Jesus have to die? Why did Jesus see the way to fixing people’s problems and redeeming a broken world being inseparable from his suffering and death?

There are certainly less traumatic ways to fix the world. So why not choose something more conventional like protest, revolt, or reform? 

We have heard plenty of ideas of how to fix the world. We have conservatives and liberals, capitalists and socialists, evangelicals and ex-vangelicals. In Jesus’ day, it was Pharisees and Sadducees, Zealots and Hellenists. 

Then as now, each tribe firmly believes that they have the cure for our societal ills. 

And I feel confident that given that Jesus rejected their overtures to join them then, that He would do so now. Instead, he points to only one solution, His death.

So we ask again. Why did Jesus have to die?

The answer is in a word used 16 times in the 16th chapter of Leviticus. It is the word atonement.

What is atonement?

The word we translate “atonement” is the Hebrew word Kippur. It combines two ideas. The first is to cover over. It describes the way one paints an old piece of wood to make it look new again. Kippur harkens back to the way the enslaved Israelites painted the doorframes of their homes with the sacrificial blood of the lamb on the night of Passover (Exo. 12). Kippur means that you put it out of sight, much as you would cover something with a blanket or a rug.

But it is the second sense of the word that keeps this covering over from being us just sweeping something under the rug. Instead, Kippur calls for us to do it so that it appeases the wrath of God. Atonement isn’t covering it over and letting it go. Atonement is how God punishes people’s sins, but He doesn’t destroy sinners in the process. 

We need atonement, and God has made us an appointment.

Our Urgent Appointment for Atonement

Leviticus 16 is an urgent appointment for atonement. Notice verses 29 and 34.

“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.

Leviticus 16:29 (ESV)

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.

Leviticus 16:34 (ESV)

The tenth day of the seventh month on the Jewish calendar is called the 10th of Tishrei. It is the highest holy day on the Jewish calendar, and it is commonly known as Yom Kippur or The Day of Atonement. Ironically it begins this evening as I offer this post (Sept. 9/15-9/16, 2021) sundown on Wednesday until sunset on Thursday.

Oops, I did it again.

So why the appointment for atonement?

The answer comes in the first few words of Leviticus 16. 

The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they drew near before the Lord and died.

Leviticus 16:1 (ESV)

It’s a tragic worship fail. But, sadly, it’s not the first time. 

The first tragic worship fail occurred while Moses was on Mt. Sinai receiving the covenant commands from God (Exodus 32-34). While waiting for Moses, the people made a golden calf, called it The LORD, proclaimed a feast for it, and worshipped it. As part of God’s response, He threatened to leave Israel. He would keep his promise and send them on into the land, but His presence would not go with them.

Moses intercedes. He had rather be in the presence of God than in the promised land. So Leviticus is the answer to Moses’ prayer. Leviticus is how people prone to idolatry (particularly the priests) need to be careful when approaching the presence of THE HOLY GOD.

The day Moses came back down the mountain with a new copy of the covenant commandments was the 10th of Tishrei. It was, in a sense, the first Yom Kippur. God’s wrath was satisfied, and He put the sin away.

And so here we are a year later. This time it wasn’t Aaron and a golden calf, but it was his sons and strange fire that provoked the wrath of God.

How long before you sin again?

Before we shake our heads in disgust at the ongoing foolishness behind Leviticus, let’s ask ourselves an uncomfortable question. After you ask God to forgive you of your sin, how long does it take you to sin again?

Israel made it one year between the golden calf and the strange fire. 

Can you make it a year? Can you make it a month? Can you make it a day?

I can’t.

Now, do you see why God made for His people a standing appointment for atonement?

How Yom Kippur Lowers the Bar

Yom Kippur is a high holy day, but it is a lower bar. Listen to God’s explanation of Yom Kippur to Aaron.

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. 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.

Leviticus 16:2-3 (ESV)

In effect, God told Aaron not to come into the Holy Place but once a year. If they tried this every day, they would end up like Aaron’s sons. There would be dead priests all over the place.

So let’s shoot for just once a year and be very careful to follow the instructions precisely.

Someone has to enter the holy place. We can’t stay out of there forever. Why? Because people sin all the time. Everyday. They need sacrifice. Somehow, someone has to get in here and appease the wrath of God and put away sin, or there is no forgiveness.

Thus, we now have a standing appointment for atonement, a yearly Yom Kippur.

The Ways We Sin

God makes our appointment with atonement not just because of when we sin but the ways we sin. 

Much like we make messes in our homes that we clean up in various ways, so atonement must “cover over” the numerous ways we sin. 

Leviticus 16:16 uses three words to describe the ways we sin.

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.

Leviticus 16:16 ESV

Uncleanness speaks of a general sense of defilement. We are unfit to worship God. It harkens back to that idea of clean and unclean in Leviticus 11. It’s not just certain animals that are unclean, but people can become unclean. There is collateral damage to sin. It gets on us and others. The shame of it sticks to our story. 

The word transgressions mean that we have crossed the line. We made an agreement with God about our relationship with Him, and we rebelled against the boundaries. The word transgression implies that we walked away from God in disobedience.

And then the general term sins means to miss the mark. We don’t live up to God’s covenant. “Sin” implies that we don’t even come close. And notice he adds, “All their sins.” So we miss the mark in many ways.

What sort of sinners are at your church?

So let’s think through this for a moment. The next time you’re at church, look around the room and ask. What sort of sinners dare to worship God today?

How many have been hateful? I’m sure there will be several who have been selfish and greedy. Lots of them, no doubt, have been online looking at impure things. So how much of our previous week might we describe as unfaithful?

And we always welcome the self-righteous and the hypocritical. Without a few Pharisees in the room, we wouldn’t know just how bad we are.

When it comes to sin, it’s not just about what we’ve done, but it’s also a matter of what we fail to do. Have we done justice, loved kindness, and walked humbly with our God? Have we been in the Word? Are we filled with the Spirit? Are we faithful in prayer? Are we bold in our witness? Have we comforted those who mourn?

Our standing appointment with atonement gets rid of the pretense of the church. Instead of asking who will come to the altar today, Yom Kippur calls for all to come to the altar today. 

We sin a lot and in various ways. All sinners will need atonement today.

The Goat of Sin

And this is where Leviticus 16 contributes to the weirdness of Leviticus. The ritual of atonement involves goats.

If you’ve been following along as we go through Leviticus, there will be several aspects of the sacrifices that are familiar. First, the priest offers a bull for himself. His sins loom large. He must prepare himself and cleanse himself before he can offer a sacrifice for the people. He’s a dumb, dirty sinner, just like the rest of us.

But then here come the goats.

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. Leviticus 16:7–10 ESV

So before we get lost in the weeds and miss the message, let me address the obvious question. What’s Azazel? I have no idea. It can be a lot of things. And gathering from all of the commentaries I’ve read, no one knows.

The message we can’t miss is in the ceremony. The priest sacrifices one goat while someone leads the other into the wilderness.

“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.

Leviticus 16:20–22 ESV

Previously, we looked at all the ways we sin. The Holy Spirit adds another word here, iniquities. Iniquities speak to the guilt of our sin. And we touched on this earlier in our discussion of uncleanness. But sin is not only something we do, but sin does something to us. It gets on us. We typically call this shame. (see the essay Thinking Fast and Slow: Sacks, Jonathan. Leviticus:The Book of Holiness (Covenant & Conversation 3) (p. 230). The Toby Press. Kindle Edition.) 

Guilt speaks to the act itself. I disobeyed God. I broke the commandment. So one goat dies for the penalty of the guilt of sin. It takes upon itself the death you should have died. It is the sacrifice.

Shame speaks to that part of sin that remains on you. God may have forgiven you for what you did, but it’s part of your story. It’s the reason you may have apologized for what you said, but the other person will never forget what you said. What you did is in the past, but somehow it stays with you.

So, collectively, the people stand together while their priest confesses all their sins, transgressions, and uncleanness on the live goat. Then, finally, someone takes it outside the camp, watching as it is led away into the wilderness.

We think of scapegoat as putting our sin on one guy and blaming him for it. With the Levitical scapegoat, everyone is to blame. We all put our sins on him together.

This goat is not about the forgiveness of the guilt sin as much as it is about removing the uncleanness, the shame of sin. The Day of Atonement says that God forgives, but we need to leave here resolved to live differently. So we are going to rid ourselves of some things and send them away.

Goats for Sell

So before you drop money for goats this afternoon, let me explain to you why you don’t need to do that. But I think you already know.

How many times have you sent sin away, but it keeps coming back?

And that’s part of the problem with Yom Kippur.

  • It’s instructive. It teaches us a lot about God, our sin, and how He forgives. 
  • It’s important as a spiritual discipline and exercise to be reminded of these truths year after year. 
  • It’s probably very cleansing, and it helps bring healing to people. Perhaps it builds their resolve against sin and increases thankfulness to God for His faithfulness to them.

But we could also say of Yom Kippur that it’s never enough. The sins keep coming back.

It’s like painting an old piece of wood. It looks new, but it’s still rotting on the inside.

Perhaps the most significant reason for Yom Kippur is that it makes us long for something more, something that can completely take away sins. We want to send our guilt and shame away and not have to lose another goat next year. We don’t need perpetual appointments with atonement. We need a permanent fix for our sinful hearts.

Hebrews 10 and Our Urgent Appointment with Atonement

Lay Hebrews 10 over the top of Leviticus 16.

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. Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body have you prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God, as it is written of me in the scroll of the book.'” When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), then he added, “Behold, I have come to do your will.” He does away with the first in order to establish the second. And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. 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. And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying, “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds,” then he adds, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin. 

Hebrews 10:1–18 (ESV)

Jesus died to take away sins, not just cover them. While Yom Kippur lowered the bar for Aaron, Jesus’ sacrifice completely fulfilled God’s intent for the High Priest and for His people. Jesus entered the Holy Place and sat down at the right hand of God as the sacrifice for our sins.

John the Baptist’s identification of Jesus is telling. “Behold the lamb of God who TAKES AWAY the sin of the world (John 1:29).”

Why does my goat keep coming back?

So you have repented of sin, and you do trust by faith in Jesus as the atonement for your sin. You pray and ask for forgiveness, but that goat keeps coming back.

Two sentences from Hebrews 10 explain our current experience.

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.

Hebrews 10:12-14 (ESV)

The sacrifice is complete. As far as your eternal atonement is concerned, you stand “perfected.” It is finished. The wrath of God against you is appeased in the sacrifice of Jesus for you. The blood of Christ covers you.

As far as your current experience is concerned, you are “being sanctified.” Jesus has removed the penalty of sin against you, but the Holy Spirit is still working out what sin has done to you.

It is because of Jesus’ atonement for us that we can forgive one another, but know full well; we might do it again. Jesus is the reason husband and wife can grow in their love and faithfulness to one another. They will make lots of mistakes along the way, but they can stand together in the grace of Jesus, their Yom Kippur. 

We no longer have a standing appointment with atonement. We have daily access to it. And we need it. We need to grow in our hatred of sin and in our thankfulness for a faithful God who has provided sinners with a way back into His presence.

Why did Jesus have to die? Because an atonement that takes away sin is the only way to fix sinners. It is articulated in Hebrews 10 as he quotes Jeremiah 31.

And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying, “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds,” then he adds, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin. Hebrews 10:15-18 (ESV)


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