Back in Leviticus 9 and 10 you’ll recall an interesting series of events that occurred on the first day “Aaron and his sons” were on the job acting as the priesthood in this newly formed tabernacle. In fact, things were going swimmingly before taking an unexpected turn.
After they finished making all the various offerings on behalf of the congregation, we read how “the glory of the LORD appeared and fire came out consuming the offering.” This supernatural “fire” roaring out from the midst of the Holy of Holies was seen as confirmation their sacrifices had been accepted by the LORD! In response to this “all the people of Israel shouted,” fell on their faces, and worshipped and praised the Lord.
While all of this is happening it doesn’t take long for their exuberance to quickly turn into horror! Leviticus 10:1 sets the scene, “Then Nadab and Abihu, the two oldest sons of Aaron, offered profane fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them. So fire went out from the LORD and devoured them, and they died before the LORD.”
On their first day on the job, in one sensational moment, 2/5ths of the Priesthood ends up being fired! The same “consuming fire” that indicated God’s acceptance of their offerings had now displayed His rejection of Nadab and Abihu! The dramatic and public nature of God’s judgment served to illustrate these men’s actions would never be tolerated!
In light of the seriousness of the task that still lay before them, Aaron and his two remaining sons “Eleazar and Ithamar” have no other choice but to suck it up, bury their emotions, and finish out their priestly duties. While things still aren’t done exactly the way God instructed, taking into account the circumstance the chapter closes with Moses being content.
The reason I bring this up is that while chapters 11-15 bluntly transition to a section known as the Holiness Code, the opening of Leviticus 16 intentionally brings us back to the events of chapter 10. Again, in verse 1, we read, “After the death of the two sons of Aaron, the Lord said to Moses, “Tell Aaron…” The idea is that God has something very important He wanted to articulate to Aaron through Moses in light of what’s just happened to his two oldest sons.
Speaking broadly, chapter 16 will document for us the procedures associated with what would become known as Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement. In His wisdom God will specifically designate one day of the year (according to verse 29 it would be “the tenth day of the seventh month”) where the High Priest was instructed to enter into the Holy of Holies and go through a set of procedures to make atonement for the sins of the people.
Before we get into the particulars, we should consider… Why did these things need to be articulated to Aaron in light of the actions of Nadab and Abihu? Though we spent ample time back in Leviticus 10 discussing the actions of these two men as well as the “profane” nature of their offering, it seems another factor contributing to God’s swift judgment centered on the reality Nadab and Abihu had also ventured into the Holy of Holies. In both Leviticus 10 and 16 we actually read how they made offerings “before the Lord.”
Logically, it would make sense why God would now use such an occasion to articulate how this most “Holy Place” in the tabernacle (the Holy of Holies) was to be treated. Who could enter? No priest other than the High Priest was ever to enter the Holy of Holies. When could he enter? Access was granted only one day a year. What was he to do while inside the Holy of Holies? Chapter 16 will cover the protocols. And why was it important he obey these instructions? As illustrated by Nadab and Abihu, disobedience would result in death!
Since our study in Leviticus makes no mention of the layout of the tabernacle itself (this was all recorded in the latter half of Exodus), let me very quickly provide you an overview. The complex was shaped like a rectangle and was defined by a perimeter fence made of animal skins. No matter where the tabernacle was ultimately erected it was always set up to face east with the only entrance being a gate built into the fencing on the eastern side.
Working your way through the complex moving east to west, you’d first encounter a large Bronze Altar located in what was known as the Outer Courtyard. This is where the various Offerings were to be made. Then before entering the actual tent of meeting, you’d also find a Bronze Basin that would be filled with water for the ceremonial cleansing of the priests.
Once inside the tabernacle, the space was divided into two rooms separated by a thick veil. In the first room you’d have the Table of Shewbread on the right and the Golden Candlestick positioned to the left. The final piece of furniture right in front of the veil was the Altar of Incense. Finally, behind the veil, the smaller room known as the Holy of Holies contained the Ark of the Covenant with the Mercy Seat upon which the presence of God would dwell.
With the layout of the tabernacle in mind, let’s look at what the High Priest was to do on the Day of Atonement… Leviticus 16:3-11, “Thus Aaron shall come into the Holy Place: with the blood of a young bull as a sin offering, and of a ram as a burnt offering. He shall put the holy linen tunic and the linen trousers on his body; he shall be girded with a linen sash, and with the linen turban he shall be attired. These are holy garments. Therefore he shall wash his body in water, and put them on.
And he shall take from the congregation of the children of Israel two kids of the goats as a sin offering, and one ram as a burnt offering. Aaron shall offer the bull as a sin offering, which is for himself, and make atonement for himself and for his house.
He shall take the two goats and present them before the Lord at the door of the tabernacle of meeting. Then Aaron shall cast lots for the two goats: one lot for the Lord and the other lot for the scapegoat. And Aaron shall bring the goat on which the Lord’s lot fell, and offer it as a sin offering. But the goat on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make atonement upon it, and to let it go as the scapegoat into the wilderness. And Aaron shall bring the bull of the sin offering, which is for himself, and make atonement for himself and for his house, and shall kill the bull as the sin offering which is for himself. ”
Before the High Priest ever stepped foot behind the veil, the day would begin with quite a bit of prep work. First, according to verse 4, the High Priest would remove his normal ornate garments, “wash his body in water,” before dawning a simple, white “linen” getup. It’s worth pointing out these “holy garments” were the common attire of all the other priests.
Secondly, the High Priest would select “one ram” which would be offered towards the end of this day “as a burnt offering” for the people as well as “two kids of the goats” which were to be used for their “sin offering.” In verses 7-8 we’re told these “two goats” were then to be “presented before the LORD at the door of the tabernacle” with lots cast designating one of the two goats “for the LORD and the other as the scapegoat.”
While we’ll discuss this in greater detail later in the study, according to Rabbinical traditions the “scapegoat” would be identified using a scarlet cord that was wrapped around its neck!
Lastly, on account this man was going behind the veil and entering into the holy presence of God, it was important he make sure there was nothing impure or off in his own life that might result in a swift judgment and untimely death. To cover his basis verses 6 and 11 say the High Priest was to first “offer the bull as a sin offering for himself and his household.”
According to verse 27 later in the day “the bull for the sin offering (of the High Priest) and the goat (sin offering for the people), whose blood was brought in to make atonement in the Holy Place, would be carried outside the camp and burned in the fire.” The implications of this are that while the High Priest would slaughter each animal in order to drain their blood in preparation for his activities in the Holy Place, their bodies were not burned on the altar.
As we work our way through the text keep in mind the High Priest will go into and out of the Holy of Holies three separate times: (1) To offer incense. (2) To make atonement for himself using the blood of the bull. (3) To make atonement for the people with the blood of the goat.
Leviticus 16:12-13, “Then the High Priest shall take a censer full of burning coals of fire from the altar before the Lord (the Bronze Altar in the outer court), with his hands full of sweet incense beaten fine, and bring it inside the veil (first trip). And (with one hand) he shall put the incense on the fire (censer in the other hand) before the Lord, that the cloud of incense may cover the mercy seat that is on the Testimony, lest he die.”
In verse 2 we’ve already been told how the presence of the LORD manifested “in the cloud above the mercy seat” on top of the Ark of the Covenant. What an incredible scene it was to behold as the High Priest “puts the incense on the fire” he has in his “censer full of burning coals” with the smoke then billowing out merging with the cloud filling the Holy of Holies.
At this point the High Priest exists the Holy Place, disposing of the censer, in order to pick up the basin containing the “blood of the bull” he’s already slaughtered for himself. Now he enters for a second time… Leviticus 16:14, “He shall take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger on the mercy seat on the east side; and before the mercy seat he shall sprinkle some of the blood with his finger seven times.”
After completing this task the High Priest again exists… Leviticus 16:15-16, “Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering, which is for the people, bring its blood inside the veil (third and final trip into the Holy of Holies), do with that blood as he did with the blood of the bull, and sprinkle it on the mercy seat and before the mercy seat.
So he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleanness of the children of Israel (general defilement), and because of their transgressions (general rebellion), for all their sins (complete atonement); and so he shall do for the tabernacle of meeting which remains among them in the midst of their uncleanness.”
Leviticus 16:17-19, “There shall be no man in the tabernacle of meeting when the High Priest goes in to make atonement in the Holy Place, until he comes out, that he may make atonement for himself, for his household, and for all the assembly of Israel. (This task was completely reserved for the High Priest.) And he shall go out to the altar that is before the Lord (Bronze Altar), and make atonement for it, and shall take some of the blood of the bull and some of the blood of the goat, and put it on the horns of the altar all around. Then he shall sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times, cleanse it, and consecrate it from the uncleanness of the children of Israel.”
Leviticus 16:20-22, “And when he has made an end of atoning for the Holy Place, the tabernacle of meeting, and the altar, he shall bring the live goat (the second goat of the sin offering). Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, confess over it all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, concerning all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and shall send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a suitable man. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to an uninhabited land; and he shall release the goat in the wilderness.”
Leviticus 16:23-25, “Then Aaron shall come into the tabernacle of meeting, shall take off the linen garments which he put on when he went into the Holy Place, and shall leave them there. And he shall wash his body with water in a holy place, put on his garments (his normal High Priestly attire), come out and offer his burnt offering and the burnt offering of the people (the burnt offerings were the two rams referenced earlier in the passage), and make atonement for himself and for the people. The fat of the sin offering (the bull killed for himself and goat for the people) he shall burn on the altar.”
Leviticus 16:26-28, “He who released the goat as the scapegoat shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward he may come into the camp. 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. And they shall burn in the fire their skins, their flesh, and their offal. Then he who burns them shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward he may come into the camp.”
Leviticus 16:29-31, “This shall be a statute forever for you: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict your souls, and do no work at all, whether a native of your own country or a stranger who dwells among you. For on that day the priest shall make atonement for you, to cleanse you, that you may be clean from all your sins before the Lord. It is a sabbath of solemn rest for you, and you shall afflict your souls. It is a statute forever.”
The idea being articulated to the people was that on the Day of Atonement something incredibly significant was being done for them by the High Priest. Everything needed to stop. All national activities screeched to a halt and the people came to witness this work.
Not only were they commanded to view this day as “a sabbath of solemn rest” and “do no work at all,” but they needed to consciously take time to consider their sin and the cost for atonement. This is what God is communicating when He says, “You shall afflict your souls.”
Leviticus 16:32-34, “And the priest, who is anointed and consecrated to minister as priest in his father’s place, shall make atonement, and put on the linen clothes, the holy garments; then he shall make atonement for the Holy Sanctuary, and he shall make atonement for the tabernacle of meeting and for the altar, and he shall make atonement for the priests and for all the people of the assembly. This shall be an everlasting statute for you, to make atonement for the children of Israel, for all their sins, once a year.’ And he (Aaron) did as the Lord commanded Moses.”
In order to understand the overarching significance of what’s happening here in Leviticus 16 on this Day of Atonement you need to keep in mind this tabernacle of meeting was more than a mere tent. According to Acts 7 and Hebrews 8 Moses actually constructed the tabernacle according to the pattern God showed him of the throne room of heaven.
This tent situated in the very midst of the camp of Israel was the place in which the lines between the temporal and the eternal were blurred, a point whereby the physical and spiritual intertwined — a location where mortal man had access into the heavenly realm.
Not only does this explain why God was so specific about the formation of the tabernacle, but it helps us see why He was so particular about the activities that took place within its four walls. Contrary to popular opinion God deeply cares how He’s approached by man!
This word “holy” repeated all throughout our passage was first introduced to the Hebrew Scriptures back in Exodus 3:5 when God instructs Moses who’s beholding a burning bush to remove “his sandals for the place he was standing was holy ground.” You see the tabernacle was a “Holy Place” because within her walls dwelt the presence of God!
With this in mind you can understand why human access to the Holy of Holies was so restricted and why entering such a dicy proposition for any sinful man. No one other than the High Priest was ever allowed entrance. And even he could only go behind the veil once a year! Additionally, as illustrated by the judgment of Nadab and Abihu and reinforced by the LORD’s candor to Aaron that he would “die” if he entered on any other day but Yom Kippur, the stakes were incredibly high even in an ideal dynamic.
The first key to unpacking the significance of this passage is to understand at its core the Day of Atonement was all about man gaining ACCESS to the presence of God through a single mediator — the High Priest! Only this man could enter on behalf of the people.
The second key then centers upon what would result from the High Priest’s important work on this particular day: ATONEMENT & CLEANSING. This word “atonement” in the Hebrew is kaphar. While this word is all over Leviticus, its first use goes back to Genesis 6:14 when God instructed Noah to “make an ark of gopherwood and cover it inside and outside with pitch.” If you’re familiar with the story it was this covering that protected Noah and his family from the judgment that destroyed the world around them with a flood.
Simply defined as to cover this word “atonement” possess a much deeper theological meaning in relation to human sin. Not only does the word describe a process by which our sins are covered over to be no longer attributed to us by God, but atonement results in a reconciled relationship with our Creator. I’ve heard atonement defined as at-one-ment!
The entire purpose for the High Priest making these various sin and burnt offerings on behalf of the people and then entering into the Holy of Holies to “sprinkle the blood” upon the Mercy Seat atop the Ark of the Covenant was to “make atonement” for sin on behalf of the people knowing there was nothing they could do on their own. He did a work for them!
In the end it was “the blood” of a substitutionary sacrifice accepted by God that not only covered over the people’s sin making them righteous, but it was “the blood” that also acted as a purifying and cleansing agent. Amazingly, not only had their debt been paid, but any evidence they’d ever been delinquent had been washed away — justification!
One of the unique aspects of the Day of Atonement was how this deeper spiritual work was ultimately illustrated for the people. Back in verse 5 the High Priest was to select “from the congregation two goats as a sin offering.” Once chosen lots would be cast leaving one goat with a death sentence while designating the other to be this “scapegoat.”
In the Hebrew this word Azazel is complicated. That said… The best definition seems to be the one who takes away mainly for what the goat accomplished. Look again at Leviticus 16:20-22… In order to illustrate for the people the complete atonement provided for them through the death of the first goat on behalf of their sins (forgiveness and justification), the High Priest takes the Azazel, puts his hands on its head, and publicly confesses all the sins of the people thereby transferring them to the goat. Then the Azazel is led “by the hand of a suitable man” far from the camp “into the wilderness” never to be seen or heard from again.
I mentioned earlier a Rabbinical tradition claiming a scarlet cord was tied around the neck of the Azazel distinguishing him from the goat who’d be sacrificed. Well, that same source records that this “suitable man” would remove the scarlet cord upon releasing the Azazel, hang it upon the gate of the tabernacle, and that it would slowly change from red to white over the next few weeks demonstrating God had indeed forgiven the people of their sins.
Though impossible to confirm as Rabbinical sources can be unreliable, it’s interesting that in Isaiah 1:18 the prophet records the words of the LORD, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” Furthermore, both the Mishnah and the Talmud record that roughly 40 years leading up to the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD this scarlet cord stopped turning white!
Practically, as incredible as this Day of Atonement was the drawbacks were obvious. For starters, the atonement, cleansing, and forgiveness provided by “the blood of the bull and goat” being sprinkled upon the Mercy Seat proved to be insufficient. Every single year the exact same ritual was required and a whole new set of sacrifices made. Atonement may have covered past sins, but was powerless to deal with man’s internal sin condition.
To this point in Hebrews 10:4 we’re told very clearly that “it was not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins.” In the end, the only sufficient sacrifice and blood that could permanently atone for our sins would be that of a sinless, perfect man.
Beyond having an insufficient sacrifice, the brutal reality is they also had an ineffective High Priest who, because of his own sin nature, had to first offer for Himself before the people. Furthermore, it’s true access to God was predicated upon a singular place on earth (the tabernacle and later the temple) and limited to one day! Case in point, a serious matter would arise concerning the Day of Atonement if the place itself no longer existed!
With the obvious flaws to this entire setup in mind (limited access, an ineffective priest, and insufficient sacrifice) one has to ask… What’s the point? As with so many other things we’ve encountered in this book, Leviticus 16 is deeply important because it establishes the legal precedent by which the work Jesus would be accomplished on our behalf.
For example… Because of Leviticus 16 Jesus can be our effective High Priest. To this point in Hebrews 7:26-27 we read of Jesus, “For such a High Priest was fitting for us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and has become higher than the heavens; who does not need daily, as those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the people's, for this He did once for all when He offered up Himself.”
With this in mind, consider for Aaron to fill this important role a humbling was required. You see in much the same way in order to be our High Priest and offer lasting atonement Jesus had to first lay aside His heavenly robes and dawn common attire — humanity!
In Philippians 2 Paul writes, “Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men.” And yet, in like manner, when Jesus was done with His work He also returned to heaven and took back His rightful place in glory!
On a related note… Because we do have an effective High Priest in Jesus there is no limitations on our access! In Leviticus 16 only one man once a year could enter into God’s presence. Today, not only do we have free access to the throne room of grace through Jesus anytime, but according to 1 Corinthians 6:19 the presence of God no longer resides in any physical structure as you and I have now become “the temple of the Holy Spirit!”
Because of Leviticus 16 Jesus can be our sufficient sacrifice. Hebrews 9:11-14, “Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come… Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of bulls and goats sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?”
One of the things I’m really blown away by concerning Leviticus 16 is the idea that on the Day of Atonement the “sin offering” included “two goats” possessing two distinct roles. What make this amazing is that it also illustrates the two separate works of Jesus.
Obviously, Jesus is the goat who was killed to provide atonement! Like this goat, on the cross, Jesus was the ultimate atoning sacrifice. His blood was spilt for our sins and by its covering we are forgiven and our lives washed clean. Ephesians 1:7, “In Jesus we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace.”
It’s interesting, but leading up to the time of Christ, the Ark of the Covenant had been missing since Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest of Israel and destruction of the Temple. The Ark was the one critical piece of furniture eventually missing from Zerubbabel’s reconstructed Temple following the Babylonian exile as well as the incredible remodel of Herod the Great.
My point is that for 600+ years leading up to Jesus the procedures of the Day of Atonement had been impossible because there was no Ark. I imagine that when the veil was torn following the death of Christ it had to of been an eerie and sober scene to see an empty Holy of Holies! Without a Mercy Seat exactly where did the High Priest scatter the blood?
I contend that just maybe the scene first witnessed by Aaron 1500 years earlier manifested one final time three days after Jesus’ death… If you read through John 20 by verse 11 Peter and John have come, confirmed Jesus’ body was missing, and left “Mary Magdalene standing outside by the tomb weeping.” At some point we’re told “she stooped down and looked into the tomb.” Notice what she saw — verse 12, “And she saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain.”
Imagine what she saw… Here you had a rectangular shaped ledge upon which Jesus’ body had been laid. Because the tomb had never been used, the seat itself likely bore seven blood stains — the seven locations where Jesus had been wounded: His head, back, side, two hands, and both feet. In addition to these seven blood splatters and lines clothes, Mary also sees “two angels” sitting on each of the far sides of this box. Interesting…
According to Exodus 25:17-18 God stipulated that on the Ark they were to “make a mercy seat of pure gold; two and a half cubits shall be its length and a cubit and a half its width. (A rectangular shaped box.) And make two cherubim of gold (angels) placing them at the two ends of the mercy seat.” While three days earlier the religious world peered into the Holy of Holies and saw a room that illustrated their religion — empty, on this new day Mary looked upon a Mercy Seat which the presence of God had rested for three days and saw the splattered blood of our redemption! Indeed the High Priest had been present!
And yet, as amazing as this is, it’s the Azazel (the “scapegoat”) that deepens the picture even further. Understand, the reason Jesus was able to take our sin upon Himself centered on the legal precedent established with the High Priest’s ability to actually transfer the sins and thereby guilt of the people unto the Azazel.
Again, this is purely tradition but when the point came whereby the Azazel was to be led out of the camp and into the wilderness the people would cry out, “Away, Away, Away!” In fact, because that goat was seen with such distain it became a custom in Israel that the “suitable man” charged with leading that goat into the wilderness would be a Gentile.
Think about that for just a moment… The Azazel taking upon itself the sins of the people before a Gentile led it out of the camp as a mob of Jews cheered, “Away, Away, Away!” In John 19:14-15 we read, “Now it was the Preparation Day of the Passover, and about the sixth hour. And Pilate said to the Jews, ‘Behold your King!’ But they cried out, ‘Away with Him, away with Him! Crucify Him!’” Little did they know they were sending away the Azazel.
The sin offering demanded two goats: one who bore the sins of the people and died and another who carried their sins away and lived. I need to say this, but if Satan is beating his condemnation drum in your life this morning please know… Jesus not only died to forgive you, but He’s carried those sins away! Jeremiah 31:34, “Their sin I will remember no more.” Psalms 103:12, “As far as the east is from the west He’s removed our transgressions.” Isaiah 44:22, “I have blotted out, like a thick cloud, your transgressions, and like a cloud, your sins.” Micah 7:19, “He cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.”
But what this also tells us is that while this first work of Jesus has been completed, His work as our Azazel continues. Today, Jesus still wants you and I to still come to Him and lay upon Him our sins and the things weighing us down. He wants to give you a fresh start. May I ask… Are you carrying around burdens Jesus wants to free you from this morning? If this is you… Friend, “Cast all your cares upon Him, for He cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:7)
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