When Adam and Eve were cast out of the garden, they were never meant to reenter the way they’d left — that way was guarded by angels and a flaming sword (Gen.3:24). God, instead, would provide a new way into His presence. So, forward, forward through the ages, God revealed the way, His plan of redemption, through different signs and various foreshadows. Each one pointed to our need for a true and lasting Sacrifice, whose name would be Jesus. On the Day of Atonement, God planned one such sign through two different goats: one would be sacrificed and one would be a scapegoat. These two goats would point to our need for a Savior who could simultaneously:
- stand as a substitute in the place of sinful people, as an atoning sacrifice and satisfaction of God’s wrath toward sin (propitiation), and
- carry the sins of God’s people far away from God’s presence (expiation).
The requirements the Israelites were to follow on Atonement Day revealed the exceeding sinfulness of sin. Sin must be put to death by the death of a substitute; and sin must be transferred and carried far away. Both.
On the Day of Atonement, the one day of the year when the High Priest could enter the temple’s Most Holy Place, God was saying:
“Fear Me. I am high and holy and you cannot approach me. Aaron’s sons died when they approached carelessly (Leviticus 10:1-3). But I will make a way (Leviticus 16:1-3). I will atone for your sin which separates you from me. I will provide the acceptable sacrifice. I will provide, on the Day of Atonement, a foreshadowing, a picture for you of the True Sacrifice who is to come.”
So: “… two goats were brought to the tabernacle/temple to deal with the sin of the entire nation (Lev. 16:6–10). One goat was killed and its blood was sprinkled on the mercy seat (vv. 15–19). This sacrifice on the Day of Atonement resulted in propitiation — the satisfaction of God’s wrath on a substitute in place of the people.”
The High Priest then laid hands on the second goat’s head (transferring the “wickedness, rebellion and sins” of the people onto the goat). This goat was then sent away to the wilderness of Azazel (Lev. 16:20-22), carrying with it the sins of God’s people. Sins were expiated, taken away from God’s presence, away from the holy place:
“Even though God ordained regular burnt offerings and sin offerings to atone for the sins of Israel, propitiate His wrath, and cleanse the people of their wickedness (Lev. 1; 4:1–5:13), it is clear from the book of Leviticus that even all these rituals were not enough. Sins could be forgotten and not confessed when laying hands on the offerings. The ultimate inability of the blood of bulls and goats to deal with sin (Heb. 10:4) meant that animal sacrifices did not go far enough but were only a temporary measure to cover transgression. Finally, the repeated sins of priests and people alike could build up to the point where not only the tabernacle but even the throne room of the Lord — the Most Holy Place or Holy of Holies — would also be contaminated. The Day of Atonement was designed to deal with all these realities.
Most of the procedures followed on the Day of Atonement were similar to those followed for the other offerings except that the blood of the sacrifices was sprinkled on the mercy seat in the Most Holy Place as well (Lev. 16:14). This was done lest the accumulated sin cause God to immediately punish the high priest and the people. Aaron and the later high priests also had to throw incense in the air (vv. 12–13) in front of them as they approached the ark of the covenant so as to keep them from being able to see the Lord; otherwise, they would have died (Ex. 33:12–23)…The requirement for the people to afflict themselves on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:29–34), a reference to self-examination and repentance, was a clear sign that the sacrifices on that day would be effectual only when the people were contrite.” (R.C. Sproul)
Easter and the Day of Atonement
In light of the Day of Atonement’s powerful foreshadowing, how will we be humbly amazed this Easter? By this:
- Jesus knew, and freely chose to be both sacrificed, and sent away from God’s presence, for our sake. (John 13:19, Matthew 20:28, John 18:4).
- The Day of Atonement dealt yearly and temporarily with the people’s sin, but Christ’s blood brings mercy instead of judgement, permanently and forever, for those who believe in Him.
- Christ’s death as the ultimate sacrifice makes it possible for His people to approach, and one day to see, God.
- Jesus is the Sacrifice that all the other sacrifices pointed to: His death, foreshadowed by the sacrificed goat, results in the satisfaction of God’s wrath toward sin for those who believe in Him; His sacrifice, foreshadowed by the cast-out scapegoat, casts our sins far from the Lord, as far as the east is from the west (Ps. 103:12).
And just as those whose sins were forgiven by the blood of the sacrificial goat and the casting away of the scapegoat had to examine themselves and repent in contrition before the Lord for the sacrifice to be effectual, so we who claim Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf must do the same. For if the procedures followed on the Day of Atonement showed the exceeding sinfulness of sin, Jesus’ death and separation on the cross did even more so.
This Easter, bow before Him! Be amazed by the unfolding of God’s foreshadowed, redemptive plan, which culminated in the merciful sacrifice of Jesus for you.
He alone is worthy. He alone is love.
“Moved by the perfection of His holy love, God in Christ substituted Himself for us sinners. That is the heart of the cross of Christ.” (John Stott, The Cross of Christ)
The Scapegoat, 1854-56, William Hunt
High Priest Offering Sacrifice of a Goat, Henry Northrop, 1894