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In the context of the Ancient Israelite culture, animal sacrifices were sacred symbols of God’s love and mercy. These symbols point forward by highlighting the great rift between God and his people, even as he dwells among them. It’s a tension that was ultimately resolved in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In fact, many of the ways that Jesus’ death is talked about in the New Testament don’t make sense without a basic grasp on the meaning of sacrifice in the Old Testament. In this blog, we’re going to focus on one particular sacrificial ritual and its connections to the death of Jesus: the Day of Atonement.

The Day of Atonement

You have probably noticed (especially if you’ve watched the video on Leviticus) that there is something special about the Day of Atonement. It is sandwiched in the very center of Leviticus. The Day of Atonement is carried out by the high priest and it’s the only sacred day in Israel’s calendar that gets its own chapter in Leviticus. All of these ancient sacrifices and rituals symbolically accomplished a number of things:

  1. They were to deter/turn away Israel from sinning (repentance);
  2. They provided a symbolic “payment” for the hard cost (or, “debt”) of the wrongdoing (ransom);
  3. They provided a symbolic purification for the community and the temple from the contagious vandalism caused by sin (purification);
  4. All of the above allowed God to maintain his presence with his people without compromising his divine justice (covenant relationship).

The five various types of sacrifices (see Leviticus 1-7) and the purity rituals (Leviticus 8-15) each focus on different parts of these four purposes, but the Day of Atonement wraps them all up into one vivid and very public display. The Israelites are going to introduce a lot of sin, and therefore damage and defilement, into their community and the presence of the temple. There’s no way a sacrifice could be offered for each and every misdeed among Israel. Surely there were sins and offenses that remained secret or that were never confessed, like sexual misbehavior, idolatry, or theft. So every year, the high priest would enter the tent and make atoning sacrifices first for himself and his family (Leviticus 6, 11, 16:3), and then for the whole family of Israel (Leviticus 7, 15, 16:5). Remember, this was a very public festival, and so the entire community would shut down to witness this ritual.

Ransom – Payment of a Debt

First, these sin and burnt offerings symbolically “covered” for the actual relational cost of people’s sin and wrongdoing. Sin is the moral failure of human beings and it creates real damage, whether it’s financial or relational ruin. God doesn’t want to kill his people for their evil. Rather he wants to show them mercy. God provided these animals as a means of symbolic payment, showing that sin is the destruction of all that is good, of life itself. Through these sacrifices, God covers for his people in a way that makes crystal clear the ugly nature and cost of their sin.

Purification – Cleansing of Defilement

Second, the sprinkling of blood would symbolically “cleanse” the tent from the sins of the corrupt people living in the midst of God. The high priest would sprinkle the blood of the sacrifices in key places in order to “atone” or “cover” for Israel’s sins, like he’s washing them away from the tent. This would be done in all areas of the temple, but the most important was when the priest would carry the blood into the very back of sacred space, into the most holy of holies. This is where the Ark of the Covenant was located, the hot-spot of God’s presence among Israel. Sprinkling the blood in this holy space was the ultimate form of purification. The Israelites had, so to speak, heaped trash into God’s living room all year long, Now every bit of it was removed and “washed” by the sacrificial blood. The place where God’s space and Israel’s space overlapped was once again pure and undistorted, at least for one more year.

Repentance – Turning Away from Sin

Third, God would graciously remove sin from the people. On an ongoing basis, these sacrifices and their solemn reminder of sins’ consequences would ideally turn repentant Israelites away from their poor decisions. However, the Day of Atonement offered a more visual reminder. Of the two goats offered up from the people (Leviticus 8, 10, 16:5), one of them, the “scapegoat,” would symbolically have the sins of Israel placed on it. The scapegoat would be sent out from the walls of the community into the wilderness (Leviticus 16:20-22), “removing” Israel’s sins from the community.

Covenant Relationship – Maintaining God’s Good Presence

Fourth, and most importantly, all of this is part of God’s mission to transform these broken and rebellious people into the holy people he’s called them to be. To the ancient Israelites, the Day of Atonement would have been experienced as an expression of God’s love. He wanted to leave them with no doubt that they were forgiven, renewed, and provided with a clean slate after the Day of Atonement.

Old & New Testament Connections

In the New Testament, Jesus’ death is described as a sacrifice that accomplished atonement. The apostles specifically used the Greek words that corresponded to the Hebrew words for “atonement” (Greek hilasterion, Hebrew kipper), which, if you remember, literally means to “cover” for someone’s debt. Everything you see in Leviticus, summed up in the Day of Atonement, pointed to a time anticipated by Israel’s prophets, when God’s people would no longer be rebellious (see Ezekiel 36:16-38), but be forgiven once and for all (see Jeremiah 31:31-34). After Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, the earliest Christians all went back and re-read books like Leviticus with brand new eyes. They began to see what Jesus accomplished was the reality to which all of these sacrificial symbols were pointing all along.

>>>>>>>>> Unknown node type: scripture <<<<<<<<<For the law was but a shadow of the good things to come, not the true form of these realities. The law could never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near.

Ransom – Payment of a Debt

The death and resurrection of Jesus, just like a diamond, had many facets of meaning depending on the angle of your gaze. But one of the most repeated phrases used to describe what Jesus’ death accomplished is “ransom payment” or “atonement.” This was accomplished through some of the daily sacrifices, but ransom was the focus on the Day of Atonement, as well.

>>>>>>>>> Unknown node type: scripture <<<<<<<<<But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sin.

Only the Creator could offer the forgiveness of sins, as he was the one ultimately sinned against. Since human sin introduced death into God’s good world, only the offering of an animal’s life could communicate the gravity of human evil. Jesus offered his life and his death as a substitute on behalf of others. He became what we are: destined for death as a result of our collective and individual evil. In return he gave us his life, opening up a way towards a forgiven future that goes beyond death.

>>>>>>>>> Unknown node type: scripture <<<<<<<<<The son of man didn’t come to be served but to serve, and give his life as a ransom for many.
>>>>>>>>> Unknown node type: scripture <<<<<<<<<In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins.
>>>>>>>>> Unknown node type: scripture <<<<<<<<<God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through his blood.
>>>>>>>>> Unknown node type: scripture <<<<<<<<<You were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.

Purification – Cleansing of Defilement

The Day of Atonement ritual provided a confident forgiveness of sins, as well as a symbolic purification of the temple and the community. However, it was limited in application and had to be repeated annually. There was a deficiency of some kind, not in the ritual, but in the humans surrounding the temple! It was their sin that kept piling up year after year. What was needed was something that would purify not only the temple, but the corrupt and selfish human heart.

>>>>>>>>> Unknown node type: scripture <<<<<<<<<Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own.

And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

>>>>>>>>> Unknown node type: scripture <<<<<<<<<How much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.

>>>>>>>>> Unknown node type: scripture <<<<<<<<<The blood of Jesus his Son purifies us from all sin.

Repentance – Turning Away from Sin

Lastly, the self-sacrificial offering of Jesus’ life did more than provide forgiveness or purification. It was also an act of love aimed at changing people. Remember the two goats offered up from the people? The scapegoat would symbolically be sent outside the city in order to remove Israel’s sins. The goal was to look at this expression of God’s mercy, and allow this divine love to permeate and motivate a whole new way of life.

>>>>>>>>> Unknown node type: scripture <<<<<<<<<So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood.

With the death of Jesus, our sin has left the city. God no longer holds it against us.

>>>>>>>>> Unknown node type: scripture <<<<<<<<<God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

>>>>>>>>> Unknown node type: scripture <<<<<<<<<He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.

Covenant Relationship – Maintaining God’s Good Presence

At the end of the day, these rituals were aimed at healing the fractured relationship between God and his people, so they could become the kinds of humans he made them to be. In the same manner, Jesus’ death provided a permanent way for people to be reconnected to the presence of the living God despite their failures.

>>>>>>>>> Unknown node type: scripture <<<<<<<<<Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?

Maintaining, cultivating, and growing this covenant relationship with God is a huge topic, worth exploring in its own right. But we hope that drawing the connections between the Day of Atonement and the meaning of Jesus’ death offers a new perspective on God’s love for you. In Jesus, we see the heart of God revealed, that he would rather die than live without us.