The Day of Atonement

Leviticus 16:1-19

5 April 2009

Blenheim Free Church, Maidenhead

Morning service


Right, I think we can get started. Who's got the goats?

Chris, you did bring the goats didn't you? Ray? Has nobody brought the goats? You know we need the goats if we want to get right with God. What kind of church is this?

Look, this is how it works: I bring a bull and a ram; you bring the goats, OK?

Once the livestock is sorted out, the next thing I do is to go into the Holy Place. You are not allowed in there, of course. And the first thing I do in there is bathe myself. Then I put on the sacred garments: the linen underwear; the linen tunic; the linen sash and the linen turban. No, it's not supposed to be comfortable.

When I come out again, I take from you the two goats. I take them to the entrance of the Holy Place and cast lots for them. One of the goats will be a sin offering and one of the goats will carry your sin into the wilderness. We really need those goats.

Anyway, after that I take my bull and slaughter it myself. And you know what a messy and exhausting business that is.

The next bit is where it gets quite scary, because what I need to do now is go in to the Most Holy Place: the bit behind the curtain; that no one can go into; the bit where God's presence dwells.

So when I go in to the Most Holy Place, I need to carry some hot coals and some special incense, and a jug of the bull's blood. All while trying to find my way through several feet of curtains layered up between the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place. It's not easy being a high priest you know.

Anyway, all the time I've got to keep the incense going so, in case the glory of the Lord appears, I won't be able to see it too clearly and die. At the same time, I've got to take the bull's blood and sprinkle it on the atonement cover — what we used to call the mercy seat; anyway, the lid of the ark of the covenant where God's presence dwells. I've got to sprinkle the atonement cover seven times by dipping my finger in the bull's blood. All the while through this fog of incense.

After that I find my way out of the Most Holy Place again, and go through exactly the same routine with one of the goats you are supposed to have brought, remembering, of course, which one was to be sacrificed, and which one driven away.

Once again I come out of the Most Holy Place (hopefully), and now I've got to sprinkle and smear more blood. I've got to take some of the bull's blood and smear it on each of the four horns at the corners of the altar out in the courtyard; then I've got to take the goat's blood and do the same. Then I've got to sprinkle the blood on the altar seven times with my finger.

And all of this is just the first half of my day. After that there's the driving of the other goat out into the wilderness. And then I've got to change out of the sacred garments and bath myself again and put on my regular garments. Then there's the sacrifices to do for the burnt offering: I've brought a ram to offer, and you're supposed to have brought a ram as well. So we need to get on with it: it might be a day of rest for you lot, but I've got a lot of work to do!

OK. What is the point of all this? Why is this extraordinary ritual necessary?

God's Presence is Hostile...

Well, the first reason is, because God's Presence is Hostile. The Israelites had found to their cost that the presence of God is a dangerous place to be: God's presence is hostile.

This is what our passage opens with in verse one: The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they approached the Lordref. The reference here is to Nadab and Abihu who, back in chapter 10, had offered unauthorised fire before the Lord, contrary to his command. So fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lordref.

What seems to have happened is that they dared to enter the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle, the Most Holy Place, on their own initiative, not at God's invitation. They didn't realise the danger; they didn't realise that God's presence is hostile to you and me.

The fact that the Most Holy Place was partitioned off with layers and layers enormous curtains should have been a give-away. The fact that it is within a Holy Place, entrance to which is restricted, which is in turn inside the tabernacle — all this should have been a clue that God's presence is hostile; we simply can't come into his presence as we wish; we need to be protected from it.

Many years ago I used to work in a hotel kitchen. On the wall we had an amazing device with a bright ultraviolet light that insects found particularly attractive. So Fred the Fly would be zipping about one day, and then he'd see this vision in ultraviolet. He couldn't help himself: it looked so glorious that he just had to go over and see more closely. So off Fred would buzz towards the light, and just as he was bathing himself in the glory of it, approaching fly-enlightenment: Bzzzzt! Several thousand volts would zap poor Fred dead.

And that's how it is for us if we dare to approach our God. We may be attracted by his glory and his goodness. We may long to know him and be close to him. But we cannot survive his holiness. If we dare to step into God's presence for a moment: Bzzzzt!

God warns the Israelites not to enter his presence whenever they please, or else they will die. God's presence is hostile.

...because his People are Horrible...

The second point is, God's presence is hostile because his people are horrible.

At the end of the passage we read we're told why all this ritual is necessary. In verse 19, it's because of the uncleanness of the Israelitesref.

Again, in verse 16, it's for the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites, whatever their sins have been.ref

God's presence is hostile because God's people are horrible. We are not welcome in his presence. We are like the world's dumbest thief. Did you hear about him last week? He decided to rob people at gunpoint in the toilets of a conference centre in Pennsylvania. Presumably he was unaware that the conference taking place was for 300 armed police officers. Needless to say, he wasn't at large for long. Lawbreakers like us don't stand much chance in the presence of the law itself.

But it's more than that. The deeper problem is that God's people are so horrible that they contaminate the tabernacle and the altar and the Holy Place.

The tabernacle was the place where sacrifices could be made for sins, specific sins, that people committed. Week by week they brought lambs and bulls and grain and doves to sacrifice for specific sins. But the effect of sin was so contagious that even the tabernacle was getting polluted. The sins of the people were making it unclean; it was becoming unfit for purpose.

The people were becoming about as welcome as a dose of MRSA in an operating theatre, or a dose of Norovirus at the Fat Duck restaurant in Bray.

God could not meet with his people in a contaminated place. The whole place needs cleansing: a deep clean. God Provides a Holiday...

So, point three, God provides a holiday. God's presence is hostile because his people are horrible, so God provides a holiday.

When I say "holiday" I'm going back a few hundred years to it's original meaning: a holiday was a "holy day": a day of special religious significance when the people were supposed to take a break from their normal lives and devote themselves to religious observance.

Despite the impossibility of it, God wants his presence to dwell among his people. He will not give up on his people, however horrible they are.

So in this chapter we find God providing a holiday, a holy day, for his people: the Day of Atonement.

It's a day when the High Priest, and the High Priest alone, could do a deep clean on himself, and the altar, and the Holy Place, and the Most Holy Place.

Before he can do anything else, he needs to sort himself out: verse 11, Aaron shall bring the bull for his own sin offering to make atonement for himself and his household, and he is to slaughter the bull for his own sin offering.ref Even the High Priest's sins make him horrible in the sight of God.

Then he works from the inside out: he cleanses the Most Holy Place, the Holy of Holies, and then he cleanses the Holy Place, the tent of meeting, verse 16. Finally he cleanses the altar outside in the courtyard of the tabernacle in verse 19.

And what he is cleansing it all from is the sin of the people: verse 16, In this way he will make atonement for the Most Holy Place because of the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites, whatever their sins have beenref.

Once a year, every year, a deep, deep clean of the place where God met his people was necessary.

When you want to remove a deep stain, you need to use the right cleaner, don't you? Sometimes in my various projects I find that white spirit does the job. Other times I have to use methylated spirits: white spirit has no effect at at all. For stains on clothes, Vanish seems particularly popular round our way. (This is not a product placement you understand.)

The point is that certain stains need certain cleaning agents.

What kind of cleaning agent does God's tabernacle need to cleanse it from the stain of the sin of the people? Well, we see it again and again: it needs to be sprinkled with blood. The blood of the bull for the High Priest's sin; the blood of the goat for the people's sin.

It may seem very strange to us that something can be cleaned by sprinkling it with blood. But when it comes to removing the stain of sin, only blood will do.

The reason for this is that our rebellion against God is so serious, that death is the only possible consequence. It ought to be our death: we have rebelled against God; we should die for it. But in God's astonishing mercy he allowed for the possibility that another death might cover over, that is atone for, my sins.

Please just flick over the page to Leviticus chapter 17, verse 11. Here God explains how it works. God's people are forbidden from eating blood, verse 11, for the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one's life.ref

The life of a creature is given in place of my life, and the sign of that life is its blood.

By sprinkling the blood on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest showed that lives had been given for the sins of the people. Atonement is the wiping away, or the blotting out of sin so that we can be "at one" again with God.

So in response to the problem that God's presence is hostile because his people are horrible, God provided a holiday: a day when a deep atoning clean could be made to wipe away their sin from year to year to year.

But ultimately we see that this could never be a real solution. It could only ever be a temporary measure. Although this holiday was prescribed by God, it wasn't his ultimate aim.

We see that in a number of ways. For one, in the end only one person, the High Priest ever actually entered the presence of God. And then only for a while and behind a huge cloud of incense. The people were as excluded from God's presence as ever.

For another, the ritual had to be repeated year after year. At the end of chapter 16 God says, verse 34, This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: Atonement is to be made once a year for all the sins of the Israelites.ref

The key problem is that the Day of Atonement, although a gracious and necessary provision of God, never really addresses the key problem. It is only an outward ritual; it can never change the hearts of God's people. And that's where the real problem lies. It's like taking medicine to control an illness when really only an operation will do.

...and Prepares for Hebrews

So finally, God's presence is hostile because his people are horrible, so God provides a holiday and prepares for Hebrews. In all of this, God's real purpose is to prepare his people for Hebrews. The book of Hebrews, I mean. Specifically, chapter 9.

Hebrews chapter 9 is a New Testament commentary on the Day of Atonement. It would make excellent homework if you wanted to go away and read it through a few times. You do do homework here, don't you?

We haven't got time to look at it closely now, so I'll just summarise a few of his points.

The big point for the writer of Hebrews is that all this ritual, year after year, is really pointing forward to one event. Through all of these sacrifices, God is preparing his people to understand one final sacrifice: the sacrifice of his son.

The High Priest, he says, entered the Holy of Holies by the blood of bulls and goats. But Jesus entered the true Holy of Holies, at the right hand of God, by his own blood. And in doing so he makes a way for us to enter as well. We are no longer kept on the outside.

The sacrifices of the Day of Atonement needed to be made year after year after year. But Jesus' perfect sacrifice of himself needed to be made only once. The slaughter of God's Son was as effective as an infinite number of slaughtered animals.

The sacrifice of God's Son was more effective than an infinite number animal sacrifices, because it makes us not only clean outwardly, but clean inside as well. Hebrews chapter 9 verse 14: How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!ref

In all of this, God was preparing for Hebrews.


So we don't need the goats any more. I'm glad you didn't bring them. It would only have got messy.

God's presence is hostile in general. But Jesus' atoning sacrifice has made a way into his presence for us. We are no longer excluded for our own safety.

God's people are horrible. But Jesus' atoning sacrifice has made us so clean that not only can we enter the presence of God, but he comes to live withing our hearts. That's how deeply the blood of Jesus cleans us.

God has provided a holiday, a holy day. Not an annual holy day any more, but a single holy day that took place one Friday almost two thousand years ago. We remembered it earlier as we broke bread in memory of Jesus' broken body and drank wine in memory of his spilt blood. And we remember it especially this Friday — Good Friday. We no longer need a yearly atoning sacrifice for our sins. But every year we look back to the one sacrifice made to cleanse us and fit us to be in the presence of God.

Let's give thanks this Holy Week that we can now enter freely into the presence of God. Let's meditate on the sacrifice that made it possible. The Day of Atonement serves to show us how vital and how immense that sacrifice was.