By Dr. Mark Scott
“The forgiveness of God, in my opinion, is the most powerful and therapeutic idea in the world,” said Leslie Weatherhead. A Christian counselor from Colorado said, “The lack of forgiveness is at the root of most all interpersonal conflicts.”
We should not be surprised that forgiveness is one of the most emphasized topics in the Bible. The Bible speaks to the importance of forgiving others (Matthew 18:35). The current therapeutic culture speaks of the importance of forgiving ourselves. The Day of Atonement speaks to the importance of God’s forgiveness of us and was at the heart of Israel’s calendar.
Israel was to be a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:6). But this did not negate the need for certain people from the Levitical tribe to serve God’s people as mediators of sorts. Aaron, Moses’ brother, was the first to serve in this capacity as high priest. Even though he assisted in bringing God’s people out of Egypt (Exodus 4:14-17), he clearly had feet of clay (Exodus 32:4-6).
So before the people could be forgiven, the one who facilitated that forgiveness for the people had to be forgiven. This was so serious that if done incorrectly the high priest might die (Leviticus 16:13). In fact, two of Aaron’s sons already died over inappropriate offerings (10:1-3).
The first section of our text deals with Aaron’s personal forgiveness. The steps for that forgiveness were as follows: 1) Slaughter a bull for a sin offering for himself and his family; 2) Take coals from the altar of burnt offering with some incense inside the veil into the holy of holies; 3) Create a smoke barrier between the ark of the covenant and the high priest himself; 4) Sprinkle blood—seven times—from the bull sacrifice on the mercy seat above the ark of the covenant. This would ensure that the priest was pure to mediate for his people.
Clean Community & Sacred Space
Once the priest’s sins had been atoned for, it was time to make atonement for the community of Israel. The priest was to take a goat and do with its blood for the people what he did with the bull’s blood for himself. Thus, he entered the Most Holy Place a second time on this special day.
This had to be done because of the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites, whatever their sins have been. Uncleanness (mentioned three times in our printed text) can sometimes refer to ceremonial impurity, but here it is an equivalent to sin. This salvific act could atone for Israel’s sins for the past year.
The priest was pure. The people were clean. Now the space where the atonement took place must be made sacred. Aaron was to do the same for the tent of meeting. The space was so sacred that Aaron was to occupy it himself, without help from anyone else.
When Aaron came out of the tabernacle he was to take some of the blood from his sacrifice and some of the blood from the people’s sacrifice and sprinkle it on the altar of burnt offering. This blood was especially to be applied to the horns on the altar, and he was to do this seven times.
Leviticus 16:1-10, 20-34
In the larger context are other important truths about atonement. A bull and a goat had to be sacrificed, but one goat (Azazel) was allowed (rather, forced) to run away. This was the scapegoat. The first goat was slain and Azazel was sent out of the Israelite encampment. This was symbolic of God sending away the sins of his people. One of the primary words in the New Testament for forgiveness (Greek—aphiemi) picks up on this image. God removes our sins as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12).
Other words that help paint pictures of forgiveness are “to lift a burden” (Hebrew—nasa), “to extend a pardon” (Hebrew—salah), “to cover an offense” (Hebrew—kippur), and “to lavish a grace” (Greek—charizomai). The Bible is rich with this vocabulary. Articulating how atonement works is vital for people to understand salvation. Atonement theories abound in our day, and because of what is at stake we must do our best to understand them.
This much we know: Israel’s forgiveness was effectual (it worked for them then), and yet in reality their sins were rolled back until Jesus could come and be the sacrifice once for all (Hebrews 10). “We do not know how tall Christ was, but we know how big he was on forgiveness” (Chuck Colson).
Dr. Mark Scott teaches Preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College and has held preaching ministries in Missouri, Illinois, and Colorado.
Based on International Sunday School Lesson, © 2012, by the Lesson Committee. Scripture quotations are from the New International Version ©2011, unless otherwise indicated.