Atonement for Sin

22 “When a leader sins, doing unintentionally any one of all the things that by the commandments of the Lord his God ought not to be done, and realizes his guilt, 23 or the sin which he has committed is made known to him, he shall bring as his offering a goat, a male without blemish, 24 and shall lay his hand on the head of the goat and kill it in the place where they kill the burnt offering before the Lord; it is a sin offering. 25 Then the priest shall take some of the blood of the sin offering with his finger and put it on the horns of the altar of burnt offering and pour out the rest of its blood at the base of the altar of burnt offering. 26 And all its fat he shall burn on the altar, like the fat of the sacrifice of peace offerings. So the priest shall make atonement for him for his sin, and he shall be forgiven.

27 “If anyone of the common people sins unintentionally in doing any one of the things that by the Lord‘s commandments ought not to be done, and realizes his guilt, 28 or the sin which he has committed is made known to him, he shall bring for his offering a goat, a female without blemish, for his sin which he has committed. 29 And he shall lay his hand on the head of the sin offering and kill the sin offering in the place of burnt offering. 30 And the priest shall take some of its blood with his finger and put it on the horns of the altar of burnt offering and pour out all the rest of its blood at the base of the altar. 31 And all its fat he shall remove, as the fat is removed from the peace offerings, and the priest shall burn it on the altar for a pleasing aroma to the Lord. And the priest shall make atonement for him, and he shall be forgiven.

32 “If he brings a lamb as his offering for a sin offering, he shall bring a female without blemish 33 and lay his hand on the head of the sin offering and kill it for a sin offering in the place where they kill the burnt offering. 34 Then the priest shall take some of the blood of the sin offering with his finger and put it on the horns of the altar of burnt offering and pour out all the rest of its blood at the base of the altar. 35 And all its fat he shall remove as the fat of the lamb is removed from the sacrifice of peace offerings, and the priest shall burn it on the altar, on top of the Lord‘s food offerings. And the priest shall make atonement for him for the sin which he has committed, and he shall be forgiven. – Leviticus 4:22-35 ESV

Everyone sins. It’s an inevitable and unavoidable fact of life. The apostle Paul put it this way: “For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard” (Romans 3:23 NLT). King Solomon gave this rather sobering assessment of the problem.

Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins. – Ecclesiastes 7:20 ESV

And Solomon would double down on the same stark evaluation of sin’s relentless stranglehold on humanity.

…there is no one who does not sin. – 1 Kings 8:46 ESV

And it was the pervasive and inescapable reality of sin that caused the apostle John to encourage confession rather than denial.

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. – 1 John 1:8-10 ESV

No one understands the damaging effects of sin better than God. While He is completely free from any form of unrighteousness, He understands that sin’s entrance into the world had a devastating impact on humanity. When Adam and Eve made the fateful decision to eat fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they did far more than disobey God’s command; they expressed their desire to become their own gods. They listened to the lie of the enemy and asserted their right to run their own lives according to their own wills. What God had declared off-limits, they determined was rightfully theirs to have. Rather than trust God’s perfect will for their lives, they allowed their desire for autonomy to cloud their thinking and blind their eyes to the devastating outcome of self-rule.

God’s decision to set apart the people of Israel as His special possession was intended to show how sinful humanity might enjoy a restored relationship with its creator. By choosing the descendants of Abraham as participants in His divine case study, God was going to reveal how the pernicious presence of sin could be dealt with in a way that could result in their restoration to a right relationship with Him. He would use this one nation to showcase His grace, love, and forgiveness. He would make a covenant with them that would guarantee them status as His chosen people and assure them of His future blessings. But they would be required to live in obedience to all the laws and regulations associated with that covenant. Failure to do so would bring divine discipline. But knowing that His people would find it impossible to live in perfect obedience to His law, God provided the sacrificial system as a means to atone for the sins they would inevitably commit.

That brings us back to Leviticus chapter 4. God has already made it clear that sin was a problem for His people. Even the priests would have difficulty living in obedience to His commands. And it was only a matter of time before the entire nation came under the weight of God’s wrath for some inadvertent and unintentional sin committed by one of their own. The whole focus of the opening chapters of Leviticus seems to be God’s emphasis on the inescapable nature of sin. Even when the people of Israel thought they were doing well, there was the very real possibility that they had sinned without even knowing it. Sin was hardwired into their systems. It was part of their nature. And they were fully capable of committing sins both willingly and unwittingly.

That’s why God instituted these sin or purification offerings. Even if someone committed a sin by accident, they were still required to make atonement for that sin. As soon as they became aware of their offense, they needed to bring their offering before God in order to receive forgiveness and restoration. And this requirement applied to every Israelite, regardless of their social status or economic standing. God even made provisions to accommodate the poor by allowing them to offer less costly sacrifices. Everyone from priests, elders, the rich, and the poor was required to follow God’s purification process. It was mandatory and not up for debate. To refuse to make the proper sacrifice for sin would leave the individual separated from God and under a death sentence. Sin required confession, sacrifice, and purification. Forgiveness was available, but only if the sinner faithfully followed God’s gracious commands.

Verses 22-35 deal provide the same protocol for the leader and the common man. Their social status did not change anything. It didn’t matter if Moses had committed the sin or if the guilty party was an obscure member of the working class. Both were required to “bring as his offering a goat” (Leviticus 4:23, 28 ESV). The only difference was that God allowed the less affluent Israelite to substitute a less-expensive female goat as a sacrifice. But both animals had to be without blemish, and the same ritual had to be painstakingly followed in order for the sacrifice to be effective. When God’s program of purification was adhered to, both individuals received the same results.

“…the priest shall make atonement for him for his sin, and he shall be forgiven.” – Leviticus 4:26, 31 ESV

The goal was forgiveness. God knew that sin was inevitable, even among His chosen people. The presence of the law didn’t eliminate the Israelite’s propensity for sin. The law simply provided a clear and irrefutable outline of God’s expectations for His chosen people. The apostle Paul would later explain the purpose behind the law.

…the law applies to those to whom it was given, for its purpose is to keep people from having excuses, and to show that the entire world is guilty before God. For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are. – Romans 3:19-20 NLT

the law always brings punishment on those who try to obey it. (The only way to avoid breaking the law is to have no law to break!) – Romans 4:15 NLT

The law of God established His standard of holiness. But He knew that the Israelites were incapable of living up to that standard. Their sinful natures made it impossible to live in perfect obedience to His righteous requirements. As a Jew, the apostle Paul could relate to the difficulty they faced.

In my mind I really want to obey God’s law, but because of my sinful nature I am a slave to sin. – Romans 7:25 NLT

So, God provided the sacrificial system as a way of mitigating the inevitable damage that sin would do to the Israelite’s relationship with Him. Sin would result in division between God and His people. In His holiness, He would be obligated to deal with their sin justly and righteously. He could not turn a blind eye or act as if it never happened. So, the sacrificial system was designed to offer atonement, make available forgiveness, and provide a restored relationship with God.

The author of Hebrews provides a powerful reminder of how the law was a foreshadowing of something far more significant to come. It was meant to serve as a sign of a greater program of sacrifice and atonement that God had in mind.

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. – Hebrews 10:1-4 NLT

And the author goes on to reveal what the Old Testament sacrificial system was meant to point towards:

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 10:5-7 NLT

God had always planned to send His Son as the final and all-sufficient sacrifice that would pay for the sins of mankind, once and for all.

For God’s will was for us to be made holy by the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ, once for all time. – Hebrews 10:10 NLT

But during the Old Testament dispensation, God provided the sacrificial system as a temporary and incomplete model of the greater plan to come. Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29), had always been God’s ultimate plan of atonement, forgiveness, and restoration. And as the author of Hebrews states, “when sins have been forgiven, there is no need to offer any more sacrifices” (Hebrews 10:18 NLT). Jesus alone can offer full forgiveness from sin and freedom from future condemnation. And Paul sums up the incredible reality of God’s perfect plan of redemption, made possible through the sacrifice of His Son.

The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. He did this so that the just requirement of the law would be fully satisfied for us, who no longer follow our sinful nature but instead follow the Spirit. – Romans 8:3-4 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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