On this day, atonement will be made for you, and you will be cleansed from all your sins in the Lord’s presence. - Leviticus 16:30
God decided to go and live with his people in the wilderness. The tabernacle—the house he had them build for him—was a masterpiece. Meticulously designed down to the last detail, it symbolized his holy presence in their midst. The people were invited to visit the house, and the high priest was allowed to enter the Most Holy Place, but, sinful as they were, their presence served to defile God’s dwelling place. As a result, on the Day of Atonement ceremonial cleansing of both place, priest, and people was required.
On that day, celebrated now as Yom Kippur, the high priest was required to wash thoroughly, then to sacrifice a bull for his own sins and his family’s sins. Then two goats were presented to the freshly cleansed high priest. The first was sacrificed to cleanse the tabernacle, the place of worship. Then, after ceremonially laying the confessed sins of the people on the head of the second goat, the priest sent it off into the wilderness.
As bizarre as these rituals may seem to us today, the symbolism was unmistakable to the people of Israel: God’s judgment for sin was being meted out on an innocent substitute, and the sins of the people were being removed from sight and memory. No Israelite observing these solemn procedures could ever assume that the Holy God takes sin lightly. By the same token, he could easily have seen that this same God, while appalled at his people’s sinfulness, nevertheless takes great pains to make reconciliation and forgiveness available.
The elaborate systems of tabernacle and temple have served their purpose and passed away. They pointed to Christ, and he has fulfilled all that they promised. No longer is there a need for goats to be offered and for blood to be shed. Christ has done it all. By his death a final sacrifice has been made. Through his death God’s dwelling place, the church, has been cleansed and made holy, and through his death sins are forgiven, banished from God’s sight and memory. The day that Christ died is our permanent and lasting Day of Atonement, so we no longer need this yearly ritual. But behind the ancient Israelite ritual we can see the reality of Christ, and we can respond with reverent rejoicing.
For Further Study: Leviticus 16:1-22, 29-34
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