Day of Atonement

God's Provision.

Nehemiah 7-8, Hebrews 9

And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength. Nehemiah 8:16 ESV

The walls of Jerusalem had been rebuilt – in just 52 days. The temple had already been restored under the leadership of Ezra. But the city was a virtual ghost town. The majority of the people who had returned to the land were living in the towns outside the walls of the city. But Nehemiah knew that his work was incomplete. While he had done what he had set out to do, the rebuilding of the walls, he chose not to return to Susa. He stayed because he knew that rebuilt walls did not make a city. It had to be repopulated. And the people who would repopulate that city would have to be made right with God. So he assembled the congregation of Judah and arranged for Ezra to read from the book of the law. This could have been the entire Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, or it could have been just the book of Deuteronomy along with portions of Leviticus. But whatever it was that Ezra read, it took hours for him to do so, and the people stood the entire time. The law was read and it was explained in detail so that the people could understand it. And the result was that the people were convicted of their sins. They wept and mourned as they heard how they had violated the commands of God. But Nehemiah told them, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep” (Nehemiah 8:9 ESV). He encouraged them focus their attention on God. While the law had reminded them of their sin, he wanted them to remember their gracious, merciful God. It was time to celebrate because God was their strength. He had provided a means for them to receive forgiveness for their sins. All of this would have taken place in the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar. Part of what was read to them out of the law was the command to keep the festivals of God. They were to celebrate the Feast of Trumpets, the Feast of Booths and the Day of Atonement. These festivals were designed to remind them of all that God had done for them in the past. And they were to culminate with the once-a-year sacrifice made on their behalf by the high priest, when he entered into the Holy of Holies and made atonement for the unintentional sins they had committed that year. This was to be a celebration. While they stood guilty before God, He had provided a means of receiving forgiveness and pardon.

What does this passage reveal about God?

When God had given the people of Israel His plans for the tabernacle and His commands for observing the sacrificial system, it was all a foreshadowing of things to come. It was an earthly picture of a heavenly reality. It was designed to be temporary and incomplete. The author of Hebrews says, “They serve as a copy and shadow of heavenly things” (Hebrews 8:5 ESV). The law, associated with the Old Covenant, was not intended to be lasting. It was not a permanent fix to man's persistent sin problem. “For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second” (Hebrews 8:7 ESV). God had told the people of Israel, “Behold, days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah” (Hebrews 8:8 ESV). He had a plan for a new and improved covenant that would be permanent and complete. Everything that the people of Israel had done in association with the tabernacle and later, with the temple, had been intended to point toward something greater to come. One of the key elements involved in man's atonement under the law was the shedding of blood. “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin” (Hebrews 9:22 ESV). Every year, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest had to offer a sacrifice for his own sins before he could intercede for the people. Why? Because he was a sinner just like to whom he ministered. Then he had to offer a sacrifice and take the blood, mixed with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkle it on the book of the law and the people, declaring, “This is the blood of the covenant that God commanded for you” (Hebrews 9:20 ESV). At that moment, the covenant between God and His people was ratified and renewed. But again, it was just a foreshadowing of things to come. Because that event had to take place every single year, because their atonement was only temporary. It was incomplete. In the next chapter, we will read, “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4 ESV). Complete, permanent forgiveness of sins through the sacrifice of bulls and goats could never happen. But God had a better solution.

What does this passage reveal about man?

Our sin is an ever-present reality. It follows us wherever we go. It is a permanent part of our experience as we live on this planet. When we read God's Word, we are reminded of our sin. It convicts us of sin and reveals to us our unfaithfulness and consistent rebellion against a faithful, loving God. But rather than weep and mourn over our sin, we must learn to rejoice in our Savior. God has provided a solution to our sin problem. And this solution is far better than the one the Israelites had. “For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf” (Hebrews 9:24 ESV). Christ didn't enter into an earthly tabernacle or temple. As our high priest, He took His sacrifice right into the presence of God the Father. And the sacrifice he made was once and for all. “But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrew 9:26 ESV). He gave His life as a sacrifice for our sins and, unlike the animal sacrifices under the Old Covenant, His sacrifice was a permanent solution to man's sin problem. His death provided complete atonement for man's sins – past, present and future. He has secured an “eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:12 ESV).

How would I apply what I’ve read to my own life?

So what should our reaction be to this news? We should rejoice and celebrate. We should recognize that the joy of the Lord is our strength. He has provided for our salvation. He has made a way for us to be restored to a right relationship with Him that is not based on human effort. God has done for us what we could never have done for ourselves. “God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him” (1 John 4:9 NLT). “But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners” (Romans 5:8 NLT). That is cause for celebration. That is reason for rejoicing. Our God is great. His love is unimaginable and His grace is immeasurable. Yes, our sin is real. But so is our salvation. Those of us who have placed our faith and hope in the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross can celebrate because our redemption is eternal, our atonement is complete. And the truly great news is, “so also Christ was offered once for all time as a sacrifice to take away the sins of many people. He will come again, not to deal with our sins, but to bring salvation to all who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:28 NLT). Now that's cause for celebration.

Father, never let me lose sight of the staggering implications of the salvation that You have provided through Your Son. Rather than wallow in my sins, let me rejoice in the fact that my sins are forgiven, my future is secure, and Your Son is some day coming back for me. Thank You for the new covenant made available through the death, burial and resurrection of Your Son. He died, but He rose again. He left, but He is coming again. I have plenty to rejoice about. Amen

The Day of Atonement.

Leviticus 15-16, Luke 9

Thus you shall keep the people of Israel separate from their uncleanness, lest they die in their uncleanness by defiling my tabernacle that is in their midst. – Leviticus 15:31 ESV

Once again, we have an entire chapter dedicated to a fairly disgusting topic: bodily discharges. The level of detail given in this chapter gets a bit embarrassing at times. But the point remains the same. Uncleanness among the people of God was to be taken seriously. Many of the conditions described were abnormal and unsanitary. There are some commentators that believe some of these conditions describe a form of a sexually transmitted disease like gonorrhea. Yet others describe normal bodily functions such as a woman's menstrual cycle. But we can't lose sight of the focus of this chapter. The real point is that these conditions, whether normal or abnormal, made those who had them unclean before God. And God could not and would not allow those who were unclean to enter into His presence. Their state of uncleanness would prevent them from entering into the Tabernacle, lest they defile it with their presence. Uncleanness disqualified the individual from participating in public worship as part of the nation of Israel.

The Israelites were not the only people who suffered from these conditions. They were common among all people groups. But remember that God had set apart the people of Israel for Himself. They were to be different and distinct. They were required to live up to a higher standard. And by providing the people with rules and regulations regarding this various diseases and disorders, God was reminding them that their own humanity was a barrier to His presence. Just by living life on this planet, they were going to come into contact with someone or something unclean. Given enough time, they would contract some kind of disease or disorder. Living on a fallen, sin-racked planet was going to expose them to impurity and uncleanness. And yet their God had called them to a life of holiness, purity and righteousness.

What does this passage reveal about God?

Surrounded by sin and constantly susceptible to sickness and disease, the people of Israel were in a difficult spot. No one could remain pure all the time. Nobody could keep themselves from committing sin or breaking God's law. Eventually, everyone would find themselves guilty of sin, unclean because of some sickness, and unable to come into God's presence. So God provided a means by which His people could atone for their sins and their sickness. When they found themselves infected or sick, He gave them rules to follow that would keep them from defiling His Tabernacle. And because God knew that they were going to sin and would inevitably have sickness in their midst, He provided a yearly day of sacrifice that would cleanse all the sins and impurities that might have gone unconfessed and unaccounted for throughout the rest of the year. The Day of Atonement was a once-a-year, once-and-for-all opportunity for the people of Israel to have their sins and sicknesses atoned for. Chapter 16 of Leviticus outlines the exact order of the events required for atonement to take place. The sequence and details were non-optional and non-negotiable. It had to be done God's way. In order to come into God's presence on behalf of the people, Aaron, as the high priest, had to atone for his own sins first. He had to make atonement for the sins of the people. He had to cleanse and consecrate the altar from the sins of the people of Israel. God required the Aaron, "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. 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" (Leviticus 16:33-34 ESV). The amazing thing about this day is that it provided cleansing and forgiveness for the people for all the sins they had committed, both intentionally and unintentionally (Hebrews 9:7) that entire year. And it was done on their behalf. They didn't bring the sacrifice. It was provided for them.

What does this passage reveal about man?

No matter how hard we try, we can't keep from sinning. Now matter how much we try to keep from getting sick, it inevitably happens. Disobedience and disease have been a part of the human condition ever since the Fall. And just as in the days of Moses and the people of Israel, no one can ever stand in God's presence totally pure and completely whole, physically or spiritually. It's impossible. So in the Old Testament, God provided the Day of Atonement. And one of the unique features of that day was the scapegoat. This was one of two goats that were used in order to make atonement for the sins of the people. One goat was presented was slaughtered and presented as a sin offering. But the second goat was not killed. Instead, Aaron would "lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins" (Leviticus 16:21 ESV). Then that goat was led away into the wilderness where it was left alone to die. The goat that was killed was a visual reminder to the Israelites that for atonement to take place, there had to be judgment on their sin that resulted in death. The goat that was released or "escaped" into the wilderness carrying the guilt of their sins was to be a reminder that their guilt had been removed from their midst. It reminds me of the words of Psalm 103: "For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us" (Psalm 103:11-12 ESV). Their sins had been paid for and their guilt removed. And God did it for them.

How would I apply what I’ve read to my own life?

Over in the book of Luke, we read the words of Jesus as He tries to tell His disciples what is going to happen to Him once He gets to Jerusalem. "The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised" (Luke 9:22 ESV). He is attempting to prepare them for the inevitable and unavoidable reality of His death. What they don't realize is that the death of Jesus was the plan of God – from the beginning. He was to be the atoning sacrifice for the sins of man. The writer of Hebrews tells us, "But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him" (Hebrews 9:26-28 ESV). Jesus had to die. He had to be the one to take on our sin and bear our guilt. He became the once-and-for-all sacrifice for the sins of man. He did for me what I could never have done for myself. He paid for sins I have committed willingly, knowingly and rebelliously. But He also paid for sins I have committed unwittingly and ignorantly.

Jesus paid it all, All to Him I owe;

Sin had left a crimson stain,

He washed it white as snow.

For nothing good have I

Whereby Thy grace to claim,

I’ll wash my garments white

In the blood of Calv’ry’s Lamb.

Father, You provided a way to atone for my sin and sickness. You made it possible for me to be restored to a right relationship with You, not because of me, but in spite of me. You gave Your Son to die in my place. You have forgiven my sin and removed my guilt – as far as the east is from the west. Let me live in the joy of that reality. Amen