Leviticus 16 might be the best chapter in the Old Testament.
The Torah– the first five books of the Old Testament– needs to be read as one large literary unit. We can’t see Genesis as entirely separate from Numbers; it’s all part of one story. A friend of mine has summarized the Torah as being one story in three parts: how Israel got to Mount Sinai, what happened at Mount Sinai, and what happened after Israel left Mount Sinai. Leviticus, the middle book of the five, recounts a lot of the second part of the story, telling us the priestly instructions given by God at Mount Sinai.
And Leviticus 16 might just be the center of it all.1
The Torah hits its climax in Leviticus 16. This chapter tells us of Israel’s Day of Atonement, the annual festival of Israel where the sins of Israel were forgiven. This day was so significant because God had declared that on it, “You shall be clean before the Lord from all your sins” (v. 30). It was a big deal.
Despite the guidelines provided in the Torah for sacrifices, the Israelites surely would not have offered sacrifices for each and every sin they committed. That would have been impossible; sin is far too pervasive. See, sin is like glitter. I hate glitter. You know why– no matter what you do, if you get a little glitter on you, that glitter will now be on everything you own for the next decade. It sticks to you like glue and yet somehow multiplies exponentially onto all your possessions. I really hate glitter.
So it is with sin. The annual Day of Atonement was a time where all the unintentional and overlooked sins would be addressed, where God would seek to heal the fractured relationship between him and his people.
The high priest, wearing garments that reflected purity (v. 4), would offer a sacrifice first for himself and his family (v. 6). Although he was the high priest of Israel, he was a sinner, too. He was the only person in all Israel that could come into the innermost part of the temple– the throne room of God– and yet he could only enter once per year after he followed a strict procedure to ensure his purity before the Lord.
Then, two goats would be taken on behalf of Israel: one would be sacrificed and the other would be sent out into the wilderness (v. 7-10). The first goat represented God’s wrath against sin being satisfied; blood was needed to atone for the peoples’ sins. What’s fascinating is that this blood didn’t only serve to cleanse peoples’ sins, but to cleanse the tabernacle itself of its defilement. As one writer said, “sin not only burdens us with guilt, it also stains us and whatever we touch. Sin makes us both unclean and transmitters of uncleanness.”2 The second goat represented the restoration of God’s relationship with his people as sin was taken out of the camp.
Jesus’ work is the beautiful fulfillment of Israel’s Day of Atonement.
Notice how he is present in all aspects.
Jesus is the greater high priest. No high priest could be the perfect mediator between God and man because of his own sin; he had to wear garments to symbolize purity and offer sacrifices for himself prior to offering the sacrifices for everyone else. Jesus, the perfect and holy Son of God, could freely come to God’s presence to mediate for us, as the writer to the Hebrews makes abundantly clear (Hebrews 9:11-12, 15).
Jesus is the greater sacrifice. The blood of goats and bulls is unable to truly atone for sin (Hebrews 10:4). These annual sacrifices looked forward to a true atonement we could only experience from the blood of Jesus. “He entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:12).
Jesus fulfills the role of both sacrificial goats. It is his blood that purifies the people and satisfies God’s wrath, and he is likewise the one on whom all sin is cast and sent out of the camp. Jesus was crucified outside the city and restored God’s people to Him in holiness.
At his death, the temple curtain– the one separating God’s throne room from everything else– was torn in two from top to bottom (Matthew 27:51). Through Jesus, God’s presence is no longer restricted from his people. No longer does only one man enter into the Most Holy Place once a year; by the blood of Jesus, all people can be restored to God’s presence right this moment. How amazing is that?!
God himself, the one against whom we’ve sinned so egregiously, is the one who brought us the sacrifice to cleanse us. We couldn’t have come back to him on our own; we couldn’t have atoned for our own sin. Praise God that he didn’t leave us to die, that he sent us a greater high priest to be our complete atonement!