Day of Atonement

1 The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they drew near before the Lord and died, 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. 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.” – Leviticus 16:1-5 ESV

At the midway point of the book of Leviticus, we find God instituting what came to be known as the Day of Atonement. It remains one of the most sacred days on the Hebrew calendar and is better known today as Yom Kippur. This solemn day was intended to prepare the people of Israel for another year of holy living before the Lord. It would culminate the 364 days of the previous year during which the people had been expected to keep all the sacrificial rituals and purity regulations outlined in chapters 1-15. While many of the sacrifices offered throughout the year could provide atonement for individual sins, the Day of Atonement was designed to atone for the sins of the entire community.

This once-a-year rite was prescribed by God so that no sins would be overlooked or unaccounted for. God knew that during the normal course of life, the people of Israel would fail to account for every sin they had committed. Neglect or denial could result in unconfessed sins that left the individual Israelite in a state of defilement and impurity before God, and any sin left unatoned for would impact the entire community’s standing before God. So, the Day of Atonement served as a year-end purification ritual that would account for all the residual sins that remained hidden and in need of atonement.

On this one day out of the year, the high priest was given access to the Holy of Holies where the Ark of the Covenant was located. Only on this day was Aaron allowed to enter the inner recesses of the Tabernacle where God’s presence dwelled above the Mercy Seat. So, it was on this solemn and highly sacred day that the high priest, acting as a mediator between God and the people of Israel, passed through the veil and ventured into the presence of Yahweh. But for that to happen, the high priest and every Israelite must be free from all sin and defilement. Nothing could be left out or overlooked. No hidden sins could be ignored. No impurity or moral imperfection could be treated as insignificant or unimportant. Entrance into God’s presence required complete holiness which demanded a total absence of any trace of sin.

What separates the Day of Atonement from all the other days of the year is its emphasis on God’s provision for corporate absolution and sanctification. On that one day, God did for the people of Israel what they had failed to do for themselves. They had been given 364 days to confess and atone for all their sins but God knew that their efforts would be incomplete and unsatisfactory. Hidden sins would remain. Impurity would still infect the camp. And as long as this was true, the Holy of Holies would remain off-limits and God’s remain unapproachable. He would be among them but attainable by them.

So, God provided this gracious and undeserved plan for corporate atonement, and like all the other sacrifices He instituted, it involved the shedding of blood. And it required that the people enter into a period marked by stringent self-denial and a laser-beam focus on their need for God’s forgiveness and atonement.

“On the tenth day of the appointed month in early autumn, you must deny yourselves. Neither native-born Israelites nor foreigners living among you may do any kind of work. This is a permanent law for you. On that day offerings of purification will be made for you, and you will be purified in the Lord’s presence from all your sins. It will be a Sabbath day of complete rest for you, and you must deny yourselves. This is a permanent law for you. – Leviticus 16:29-31 NLT

The chapter begins with a firm warning from God. He told Moses to remind Aaron of the danger of entering His presence unannounced or in a state of unholiness.

Warn your brother, Aaron, not to enter the Most Holy Place behind the inner curtain whenever he chooses; if he does, he will die. For the Ark’s cover—the place of atonement—is there, and I myself am present in the cloud above the atonement cover. – Leviticus 16:2 NLT

Only on this one day was Aaron allowed to venture into this most sacred section of the Tabernacle, and only after He had followed the stringent rules set out by God.

When Aaron enters the sanctuary area, he must follow these instructions fully. He must bring a young bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. He must put on his linen tunic and the linen undergarments worn next to his body. He must tie the linen sash around his waist and put the linen turban on his head. These are sacred garments, so he must bathe himself in water before he puts them on. Aaron must take from the community of Israel two male goats for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. – Leviticus 16:3-5 NLT

These rules were non-negotiable and had to be followed down to the last letter. To fail to do so would result in death. Aaron was tasked with a heavy responsibility. He held the fate of the entire Israelite community in his hands. Any failure to carry out every detail of God’s instructions would have devastating consequences, not only for Aaron but for every Israelite man, woman, and child.

The central focus of the Tabernacle was that small room called the Holy of Holies in which the Ark of the Covenant was located. On top of this ornate gold-covered box was the Mercy Seat, a solid gold slab measuring 44” x 26,” and on which two golden cherubim were affixed with their outstretched wings covering the surface of the lid. The Hebrew name for this golden seat was כַּפֹּרֶת (kapōreṯ), which can be translated “place of atonement” or “place of propitiation.” The combined Ark and Mercy Seat served as God’s throne and footstool. It was here, in the inner recesses of the Tabernacle, that His holy presence dwelled among His people. But His holiness remained off-limits to the people as long as sin remained among them. No one was allowed to venture into His presence, including Moses or Aaron, as long as any sin remained unaccounted and unatoned for.

But the Day of Atonement was God’s gracious way of providing access to His presence despite the presence of sin among His people. He had made a way. And this providential provision by God had been going on ever since He had delivered the people of Israel from their captivity from Egypt.

I am the Lord, your Holy One,
    Israel’s Creator and King.
I am the Lord, who opened a way through the waters,
    making a dry path through the sea.
I called forth the mighty army of Egypt
    with all its chariots and horses.
I drew them beneath the waves, and they drowned,
    their lives snuffed out like a smoldering candlewick.” – Isaiah 43:15-17 NLT

God had made a way for them to escape their captivity in Egypt. But that was not the end.

“But forget all that—
    it is nothing compared to what I am going to do.
For I am about to do something new.
    See, I have already begun! Do you not see it?
I will make a pathway through the wilderness.
    I will create rivers in the dry wasteland.
The wild animals in the fields will thank me,
    the jackals and owls, too,
    for giving them water in the desert.
Yes, I will make rivers in the dry wasteland
    so my chosen people can be refreshed.
I have made Israel for myself,
    and they will someday honor me before the whole world. – Isaiah 43:18-21 NLT

God had made a way through the Red Sea and across an uninhabitable and inhospitable wilderness. He had provided for all their needs. And now, He was providing a way to escape the vice-like grasp of sin’s hold on their lives. They were still living in captivity to sin. They were suffering from spiritual thirst and hunger because of sin’s persistent presence in their lives. And while He had given them His law and the sacrificial system, they were incapable of flawless obedience and imperfect when it came to atoning for their own sins. So, God provided a way – a gracious and completely efficacious way that accounted for every sin so that perfect and complete atonement could be experienced by all.

But God’s way required complete dependence upon Him, and it demanded the shedding of blood for the forgiveness of sins. There was no way around the fact that sin demanded the death of the guilty party. But God had provided the sacrificial system as a way of exacting payment without demanding the life of the sinner. The sacrificial system provided a form of substitutionary atonement, where the unblemished animal shed its blood and gave its life on behalf of the guilty sinner. And this pattern was continued on the Day of Atonement but with the added benefit that the entire faith community was included in the process. Full atonement for all.

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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