The High Cost of Atonement

16 “On the fourteenth day of the first month is the Lord‘s Passover, 17 and on the fifteenth day of this month is a feast. Seven days shall unleavened bread be eaten. 18 On the first day there shall be a holy convocation. You shall not do any ordinary work, 19 but offer a food offering, a burnt offering to the Lord: two bulls from the herd, one ram, and seven male lambs a year old; see that they are without blemish; 20 also their grain offering of fine flour mixed with oil; three tenths of an ephah shall you offer for a bull, and two tenths for a ram; 21 a tenth shall you offer for each of the seven lambs; 22 also one male goat for a sin offering, to make atonement for you. 23 You shall offer these besides the burnt offering of the morning, which is for a regular burnt offering. 24 In the same way you shall offer daily, for seven days, the food of a food offering, with a pleasing aroma to the Lord. It shall be offered besides the regular burnt offering and its drink offering. 25 And on the seventh day you shall have a holy convocation. You shall not do any ordinary work.

26 “On the day of the firstfruits, when you offer a grain offering of new grain to the Lord at your Feast of Weeks, you shall have a holy convocation. You shall not do any ordinary work, 27 but offer a burnt offering, with a pleasing aroma to the Lord: two bulls from the herd, one ram, seven male lambs a year old; 28 also their grain offering of fine flour mixed with oil, three tenths of an ephah for each bull, two tenths for one ram, 29 a tenth for each of the seven lambs; 30 with one male goat, to make atonement for you. 31 Besides the regular burnt offering and its grain offering, you shall offer them and their drink offering. See that they are without blemish.  Numbers 28:16-31 ESV

The next major event God reminded the Israelites to keep was the annual feast of unleavened bread. It took place in the first month of the year, the month of Nisan (March/April), in conjunction with the celebration of Passover. This week-long feast was the first of seven Jewish feasts or festivals each year, and as part of the celebration, the Israelites were prohibited from eating bread baked with yeast. This was to commemorate their hasty departure from Egypt during the Exodus.

“For seven days the bread you eat must be made without yeast. On the first day of the festival, remove every trace of yeast from your homes. Anyone who eats bread made with yeast during the seven days of the festival will be cut off from the community of Israel. On the first day of the festival and again on the seventh day, all the people must observe an official day for holy assembly. No work of any kind may be done on these days except in the preparation of food.” – Exodus 12:15-16 NLT

God declared that this feast would be celebrated for perpetuity, throughout all generations.

“Celebrate this Festival of Unleavened Bread, for it will remind you that I brought your forces out of the land of Egypt on this very day. This festival will be a permanent law for you; celebrate this day from generation to generation. – Exodus 12:17 NLT

Now, four decades later, the descendants of those original Israelites who had lived through the first Passover and escaped the judgment of the death angel, were standing on the banks of the Jordan River waiting to enter Canaan. And God wanted them to remember His miraculous deliverance of their forefathers.

Along with the unleavened bread, the Israelites were to present a special offering on the seventh and final day of the festival.

“As a special gift you must present a burnt offering to the Lord—two young bulls, one ram, and seven one-year-old male lambs, all with no defects.” – Numbers 28:19 NLT

These unblemished animals were first sacrificed, their blood poured out, and then their bodies were burned so that they might be a pleasing aroma to God. They became symbolic of the sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross for the sins of mankind. Paul would later write to the believers in Ephesus and encourage them to follow the example of Christ.

Imitate God, therefore, in everything you do, because you are his dear children. Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ. He loved us and offered himself as a sacrifice for us, a pleasing aroma to God. – Ephesians 5:1-2 NLT

The author of Hebrews uses the imagery of the sacrificed animals to point out the superior nature of Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice on the cross for the sins of man.

The old system under the law of Moses was only a shadow, a dim preview of the good things to come, not the good things themselves. The sacrifices under that system were repeated again and again, year after year, but they were never able to provide perfect cleansing for those who came to worship. If they could have provided perfect cleansing, the sacrifices would have stopped, for the worshipers would have been purified once for all time, and their feelings of guilt would have disappeared.

But instead, those sacrifices actually reminded them of their sins year after year. For it is not possible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. That is why, when Christ came into the world, he said to God,

“You did not want animal sacrifices or sin offerings.
But you have given me a body to offer.
You were not pleased with burnt offerings
or other offerings for sin.
Then I said, ‘Look, I have come to do your will, O God—
as is written about me in the Scriptures.’” – Hebrews 10:1-7 NLT

But while the sacrifices associated with the feast of unleavened bread could not fully alleviate mankind’s sin debt, God still wanted the Israelites to follow His commands to the letter. As the author of Hebrews points out, the sacrifices were meant to remind the Israelites of their sin and their constant need for cleansing.

There was one offering that was to stand out among them all.

“You must also offer a male goat as a sin offering to purify yourselves and make yourselves right with the Lord.” – Numbers 28:22 NLT

The sacrifice of this animal was intended to provide justification. Its death would not only cleanse the Israelites from sin but reestablish their relationship with God. It would restore fellowship between sinful humanity and a holy God. And that restored relationship would be essential for the ongoing well-being of the people of God. Without it, they stood condemned and alienated from a holy and righteous God who is obligated to punish sin.

It was essential that the Israelites follow all the prescribed procedures associated with the seven days of the festival. Nothing could be left out or altered in any way. To do so would jeopardize their relationship with God and that would have devastating results.

The Festival of Harvest, also known as the Feast of Firstfruits, was next on the Jewish calendar. This feast occurred at the beginning of the harvest and was intended to celebrate God’s gracious provision for all their needs. They were commanded to bring the first fruits of their harvest to the tabernacle and present them as an offering to God, declaring their intention to return to God a portion of what He had given them.

“I have brought you the first portion of the harvest you have given me from the ground.” – Deuteronomy 26: 10 NLT

Then they were to place the produce before the Lord and bow to the ground in worship before Him. This offering was to be followed by a community-wide celebration.

“Afterward you may go and celebrate because of all the good things the Lord your God has given to you and your household.” – Deuteronomy 26:11 NLT

The Feast of Harvests, like the Feast of Unleavened Bread, was also accompanied by the sacrifice of unblemished animals. These flawless creatures would have been of great value as breeding stock, yet the Israelites were to offer them up willingly and gladly as expressions of gratitude to God and as payment for their sins. That’s why God commanded, “Be sure that all the animals you sacrifice have no defects” (Numbers 28:31 NLT). God would not accept damaged goods or allow the Israelites to offer sacrifices that did not cost them something. Their desire for a restored relationship with Him was to be worth the cost and any sacrifice they might have to make. After all, the unblemished and undeserving animals became substitutes for the sins of the people. They died so the people could live. And eventually, Jesus would become the final sacrifice for all sin.

Under the old covenant, the priest stands and ministers before the altar day after day, offering the same sacrifices again and again, which can never take away sins. But our High Priest offered himself to God as a single sacrifice for sins, good for all time. Then he sat down in the place of honor at God’s right hand. There he waits until his enemies are humbled and made a footstool under his feet. For by that one offering he forever made perfect those who are being made holy. – Hebrews 10:11-14 NLT 

Earlier in his letter, the author of Hebrews declared the reality of the Jewish sacrificial system: “For without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22 NLT). And Jesus came to shed His blood for the sins of men so that they might receive forgiveness and have their severed relationship with God restored for all eternity.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.