23 “Then Aaron shall come into the tent of meeting and shall take off the linen garments that he put on when he went into the Holy Place and shall leave them there. 24 And he shall bathe his body in water in a holy place and put on his garments and come out and offer his burnt offering and the burnt offering of the people and make atonement for himself and for the people. 25 And the fat of the sin offering he shall burn on the altar. 26 And he who lets the goat go to Azazel shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward he may come into the camp. 27 And the bull for the sin offering and the goat for the sin offering, whose blood was brought in to make atonement in the Holy Place, shall be carried outside the camp. Their skin and their flesh and their dung shall be burned up with fire. 28 And he who burns them shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward he may come into the camp.
29 “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. 30 For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you. You shall be clean before the Lord from all your sins. 31 It is a Sabbath of solemn rest to you, and you shall afflict yourselves; it is a statute forever. 32 And the priest who is anointed and consecrated as priest in his father’s place shall make atonement, wearing the holy linen garments. 33 He shall make atonement for the holy sanctuary, and he shall make atonement for the tent of meeting and for the altar, and he shall make atonement for the priests and for all the people of the assembly. 34 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 16:23-34 ESV
In what has come to be known as The Song of the Suffering Servant, the prophet Isaiah predicts the future death of the Lord’s Messiah. In this prophetic passage, Isaiah describes in great detail the trial and crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29). And there is a portion of the passage that sounds eerily similar to the fate suffered by the scapegoat.
…the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he opened not his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living. – Isaiah 53:6-8 ESV
Just as Aaron laid his hands on the scapegoat to transfer the sins of the people onto the innocent animal, God laid the iniquities of mankind onto His sinless and undeserving Son. For a time on the cross, as Jesus bore the weight of the sins of humanity, He was separated from His Heavenly Father. His unbroken communion with His Father was temporarily shattered, causing Him to cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46 ESV).
Like the scapegoat, Jesus found Himself cast from God’s presence – cut off from the land of the living. But Jesus’ separation was temporary. He died, paying the full debt owed because of mankind’s sins. But He also rose from the dead as evidence that His sacrifice satisfied the demands of a just and holy God. The scapegoat was led into the wilderness where it would die. But it would experience no resurrection. And the next year, another goat would take its place, suffering the very same fate. And this would go on for centuries because the people of Israel would continue to sin and remain in constant need of atonement.
But one day, Jesus would come and do what no scapegoat could ever do. According to the apostle Peter, Jesus would be the final and perfect sacrifice, offering His sinless life in place of sinful humanity, dying the death they owed so that, by faith, they might enjoy atonement, the forgiveness of their sins, and the hope of eternal life.
Christ suffered for our sins once for all time. He never sinned, but he died for sinners to bring you safely home to God. He suffered physical death, but he was raised to life in the Spirit. – 1 Peter 3:18 NLT
Once Aaron had overseen the sending away of the scapegoat, he was to go through a ritual of cleansing, removing his blood-stained garments, washing his body with water, and putting on his high-priestly robes. Having removed the last vestiges of sin and corruption, Aaron then a burnt offering for himself and for the people. He also burned the fat of the purification offering. The final step in the sacrificial process was to have the hides, flesh, and dung of the bull and goat taken outside the camp and burned. The one assigned to this rather unpleasant task was to ceremonially cleanse himself before returning to the camp. This completed the process of removing all sin and defilement from the Tabernacle and from within the family of Israel.
But there was one more vital step required for the Day of Atonement to be complete and satisfactory. God ordered that the entire day be “a Sabbath day of complete rest” (Leviticus 16:31 NLT). No work was to be done. No food was to be eaten. God describes this day of complete abstinence as a day for “afflicting the soul.” As Aaron was busy offering sacrifices on their behalf, they were to deny themselves the normal aspects of daily life. Rather than eat, they were to fast and pray. Instead of bathing, they were to cover themselves with sackcloth and ashes, a sign of mourning over their sins. They were to cease from all work and place their trust in the atoning work of the high priest as he interceded on their behalf. This final step in the process was required for the atoning benefits to take full effect.
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. – Leviticus 16;30 NLT
Aaron could carry out every part of the process established by God, but if the people refused to own up to the seriousness of their own sins and “afflict their souls” appropriately, his efforts would be for naught. David, the great king of Israel, understood the need for repentance. After having an affair with another man’s wife and arranging for that man’s murder so the woman could be his, David was punished by God for his crimes. The baby born from this adulterous relationship died. And after David had taken time to contemplate his actions, he wrote the following:
You do not desire a sacrifice, or I would offer one.
You do not want a burnt offering.
The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit.
You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God. – Pslam 51:16-17 NLT
David understood that no amount of blood sacrifices could cleanse him of his sins if he was unwilling to own up to what he had done. The apostle John put it this way:
If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. – 1 John 1:6 ESV
John knew that unacknowledged sin that remains unconfessed destroys a believer’s fellowship with God. And he went on to warn about the danger of denying sin in the face of the Spirit’s convicting ministry.
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. – 1 John 1:8 ESV
John wasn’t denying the efficacy of Jesus’ sacrifice. In fact, he made it clear that “the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7 ESV). The problem arises when we deny or debate the existence of sin in our lives and refuse to confess.
If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. – 1 John 1:10 ESV
For God to institute an entire day dedicated to the removal of all sin and then have His people deny the very existence of that sin would have been a travesty. Yet, John reminds us that, even today, those who have been cleansed by the blood of Jesus Christ, need to own up to their sin, repent and seek forgiveness. And when we “afflict our souls” through confession, prayer, and fasting, we enjoy the cleansing and life-giving joy of complete forgiveness.
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. – 1 John 1:9 ESV
Sin was inevitable for the people of Israel. That’s why the Day of Atonement was an annual event. God knew His people would disobey His commands and end up defiling themselves, the camp, and the Tabernacle itself. In doing so, they would break fellowship with Him. Their defilement would require purification. But it all began with a humble admission of their sin and their need for cleansing by God. Atonement is always a gift from God and never a work we perform. Aaron did all the work on behalf of the people. The only thing required of them was confession and contrition. As David so aptly put it: “The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit. You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God” (Psalms 51:17 NLT).
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.