The Joy of Forgiveness

1 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel, saying, If anyone sins unintentionally in any of the Lord’s commandments about things not to be done, and does any one of them, if it is the anointed priest who sins, thus bringing guilt on the people, then he shall offer for the sin that he has committed a bull from the herd without blemish to the Lord for a sin offering. He shall bring the bull to the entrance of the tent of meeting before the Lord and lay his hand on the head of the bull and kill the bull before the Lord. And the anointed priest shall take some of the blood of the bull and bring it into the tent of meeting, and the priest shall dip his finger in the blood and sprinkle part of the blood seven times before the Lord in front of the veil of the sanctuary. And the priest shall put some of the blood on the horns of the altar of fragrant incense before the Lord that is in the tent of meeting, and all the rest of the blood of the bull he shall pour out at the base of the altar of burnt offering that is at the entrance of the tent of meeting. And all the fat of the bull of the sin offering he shall remove from it, the fat that covers the entrails and all the fat that is on the entrails and the two kidneys with the fat that is on them at the loins and the long lobe of the liver that he shall remove with the kidneys 10 (just as these are taken from the ox of the sacrifice of the peace offerings); and the priest shall burn them on the altar of burnt offering. 11 But the skin of the bull and all its flesh, with its head, its legs, its entrails, and its dung— 12 all the rest of the bull—he shall carry outside the camp to a clean place, to the ash heap, and shall burn it up on a fire of wood. On the ash heap it shall be burned up.” – Leviticus 4:1-12 ESV

Having covered the burnt, grain, and peace offerings, God now addresses two distinctively different sacrifices dealing with unintentional violations of His commands. The Hebrew phrase is בִּשְׁגָגָה (bishgagah) and it refers to a sin committed in ignorance and without premeditation. This could involve a case of someone violating one of God’s commands unknowingly or accidentally. Unlike the first three kinds of offerings, these two offerings place emphasis on the status of the sinner and not the sacrifice itself. It’s not that the type of sacrifice or the manner in which it is given is unimportant but that the specific type of sin is the higher priority.

These sacrifices involve accidental sins or sins of omission. If someone inadvertently committed a sin of which they were ignorant or unaware, there was a way for them to be restored to a right relationship with God. Their ignorance did not excuse or absolve them from guilt or condemnation. Simply claiming, “I didn’t know” would not alleviate their guilty standing before a holy God. Failing to observe one of God’s commands was a violation worthy of judgment whether the individual did so knowingly or not. And, like all other violations of God’s commands, these sins of ignorance required atonement.

So, God provided a gracious and very specific remedy for these unique situations. He knew that not all sins would be blatant displays of willful rebellion against His law. Some would innocently and unknowingly break His commands and find themselves under His righteous judgment. What were they to do? How were they supposed to remedy the situation in a way that God would find acceptable?

First of all, God addressed the priesthood. Even this select group of men would find themselves in the awkward and dangerous spot of having violated one of God’s commands unknowingly. Yet, it seems that these kinds of cases would have been rare since the priests were to be the experts when it came to God’s laws. But God knew that even Aaron and his sons were fully capable of making a mistake and unwittingly violating one of God’s many laws. And, when that unlikely occasion arose, there was a way for them to restore their broken relationship with God.

One of the important things to note in this passage is that God took all forms of sin seriously. It didn’t matter whether the individual intended to sin or not. Once the sin had been committed, it created a barrier between the individual and God. It left the violator impure and unworthy to enter God’s presence. This posed a real problem for those men who had been set apart to minister as mediators between God and His people. If Aaron or one of his sons committed an unintentional sin, their very presence in the Tabernacle and their interactions with the altars and utensils would invalidate any offerings they made. They would end up contaminating God’s house and rendering any of their actions as priests to be unacceptable.

“Purification is the main element in the purification [sin] sacrifice. Sin not only angers God and deprives him of his due, it also makes his sanctuary unclean. A holy God cannot dwell amid uncleanness. The purification offering purifies the place of worship, so that God may be present among his people.” – Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus

These men played a vital role in the spiritual well-being of the people of Israel, and if their personal sins, whether willing or unwilling, remained unatoned for, the people will suffer the loss of God’s presence and power in their lives. Not only that, any sacrifices they offered would be deemed unacceptable to God. So, it was essential that the priests had a way to appease God for any and all sins they committed – even those that were the result of ignorance.

These inadvertent sins included such things as failing to keep one’s word or simply neglecting to do the right thing. Living in a sin-stained world could leave someone contaminated without them even knowing it. The key to these kinds of sins is awareness. Once someone became aware that they had unknowingly broken one of God’s commands, they were expected to confess their sin and make atonement for it. The former ignorance would not absolve them from responsibility or assuage their guilt. If they had unknowingly touched something that was unclean, that action would have rendered them unclean. Once they became aware of their unclean status, they were expected to do the right thing and offer the proper sacrifice. And God was quite specific as to the nature of that sacrifice.

While these sin offerings bear similarities to the burnt, grain, and peace offerings, there were slight differences. These offerings were not meant to be a soothing aroma to God. Instead, they were intended to expiate or make amends for the sin committed. As with all the other offerings, the animal that was to be sacrificed had to be without defect. There was a cost involved, even if the sin was accidental. The manner in which the sin was committed did not lessen the penalty or the cost of atonement. A perfect sacrifice was required to restore the sinner’s broken relationship with God.

When it comes to sin, ignorance is not bliss. A misguided sense of innocence did not render one right in the eyes of a holy, all-knowing God. That is why all sin should be taken seriously and it is a sober awareness of sin’s capacity for hiddenness that led David to cry out to God, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life” (Psalm 139:23-24 NLT).

David knew that sin was insidious in its ability to hide in plain sight. There was no way that he could know the true condition of his own heart, so he asked God to reveal any hidden sin that needed to be confessed and atoned for. And God reminded the prophet, Jeremiah, that the key to unlocking the secrets of the human heart lies with God and not man.

“The human heart is the most deceitful of all things,
    and desperately wicked.
    Who really knows how bad it is?
But I, the Lord, search all hearts
    and examine secret motives.
I give all people their due rewards,
    according to what their actions deserve.” – Jeremiah 17:9-10 NLT

Even sins committed in ignorance carry weight and require atonement. They cannot be overlooked, should not be underestimated, or treated apathetically. God wanted His people to live in perfect fellowship with Him, but He knew that sin would create an impenetrable barrier. The presence of sin in the individual’s life rendered them unacceptable and made God inaccessible. But God graciously provided a solution – in the form of a blood sacrifice because “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22 ESV).

And once the atoning sacrifice was offered and the blood was sprinkled on the altar, the remaining portion of the slain animal was carried outside the camp and burned.

“…the skin of the bull and all its flesh, with its head, its legs, its entrails, and its dung— all the rest of the bull—he shall carry outside the camp to a clean place, to the ash heap, and shall burn it up on a fire of wood. On the ash heap it shall be burned up.” – Leviticus 4:11-12 NLT

In a sense, these unacceptable portions of the animal represented the unacceptable nature of the individual’s sin. Unworthy for use as an offering to the Lord, these leftovers were to be taken outside the camp and burned. It was David who wrote of the amazing reality of God’s forgiveness.

Finally, I confessed all my sins to you
    and stopped trying to hide my guilt.
I said to myself, “I will confess my rebellion to the Lord.”
    And you forgave me! All my guilt is gone. – Psalm 32:5 NLT

And it was God who assured His stubborn and rebellious people of His willingness to faithfully forgive their repeated acts of sin against Him.

“I—yes, I alone—will blot out your sins for my own sake
    and will never think of them again. – Isaiah 43:25 NLT

Sin was inevitable. Accidental sins were unavoidable. But forgiveness was always available. And the key to restoration was confession and atonement. God would later remind His covenant people of His willingness to forgive if they would only confess.

“…if my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sins and restore their land.” – 2 Chronicles 7:14 NLT

Men sin but God forgives. This requires that men confess so that God can restore them. And, thankfully, God provided His people with the means to be restored to a right relationship with Himself, even when they had violated His law by mistake.

The great news is, that “if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness” (1 John 1:9 NLT).

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.

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